Sidelining the shock jocks, Anthony Tan delves deep into the numbers in an attempt to separate fact from fiction when it comes to our vulnerability on two wheels.
What with all the anti-cycling stories in the press this year, you’d be forgiven if you’ve temporarily (or permanently) decided to hang up the wheels, or, like me, conduct the majority of your weekday training sessions on the turbo trainer, as unexciting it may be.
My excuse is that I’m time poor, and in the throes of winter, can’t be bothered putting on layer upon layer of clothing so I don’t turn into an ice-block five minutes down the road. However part of it, I must admit, subconscious or otherwise, relates to the fact that I feel slightly overwhelmed by the number of stories involving bikerelated incidents (read: accidents) of late.
But how much of it is hype and how much is reality?
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in its most recent annual report, released in January this year, found Australia and Canada were the only two countries out of 27 member nations to witness an increase in cycling deaths between 2000 and 2011.
According to the federal government’s Australian Road Deaths Database, through the 1990s the average number of cycling fatalities was 52; in the 2000s it was 36. So far this decade, over four years, that average has increased to 39 per year – although last year saw the highest
total since 1997, with 50 of our biwheeled brethren sadly no longer with us.
“For a person of average health, an hour’s cycling adds about an hour on to your life. The (very slight) risk of dying in an accident only takes a few minutes off that.”
While I’ll be the first to admit that fifty is far too many, out of a total 1,193 road-related deaths in Australia in 2013, including 157 pedestrians, 215 motorcycle riders and 766 motor vehicle occupants, those cyclists killed account for just 4.2 per cent of the total. If we break that down by city, it’s between eight and 10 per year over four years in Sydney (versus 164-185 motor vehicle occupants), and between 2007-08 in Melbourne, four per year (versus 96 car occupants).
A total of 4.2 per cent of total fatalities – a little less than you imagined, perhaps? Still, the figure of 1,193 equates to just over two per cent of road-related injuries admitted to hospital; in 2010-11, there were more than 50,000 hospital admissions for transport-related injuries in Australia (both road, accounting for roughly 33,000 hospitalisations, and off-road). The majority make a complete recovery and are out of the wards within a week – yet I’m sure many of you have friends or know of people who, as a result of serious injury and/or trauma, be it physical or emotional, can no longer ride a bike again, which, for the truly passionate like ourselves, is somewhat of a death sentence in itself.
So, who are those admitted to hospital? According to a 2013 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report, out of the 33,000 road-related hospitalisations, 49.8 per cent were occupants of cars – even though they, as a user group, represent 80.1 per cent of capital city travel. And out of the two-wheeled fraternity, 22.3 per cent were motorcycle riders and 15.7 per cent cyclists – even though together they account for less than five per cent of capital city travel.
Cyclists account for 15.7 per cent of hospitalisations; in light of our apparent fragility when riding in the city, about or a little less than you imagined? So, if you do ride a bike for work or pleasure, what is the likelihood you’ll be hit? In other words, how dangerous is it? ‘Cycling injuries in Australia: Road safety’s blind spot?’, a 2010 study published in the Journal of the Australasian College of Road Safety, looked at police data on road crashes in Sydney over a four-year period by mode of transport, and compared these against distance travelled.
The authors estimated that, kilometre for kilometre, the relative risk of a fatality on a bicycle in Sydney was around 11 to 19 times higher than in a car. In Melbourne, over 2007-08, researchers found cyclists were four-and-a-half times more likely to die travelling the same distance compared to car occupants.
Correspondingly, risk of injury involved a similar level of danger, Sydney’s pedal pushers 13 to 15 times more likely to suffer injury compared to their vehicle powered counterparts. In Melbourne during 2008-09, risk of serious injury while cycling was 12.9 times that of car travel.
Again, considering our obvious vulnerability, about what you imagined? The authors concluded: “While more research needs to be done to better understand ‘the problem’, there is nonetheless sufficient evidence and a good case for ‘solution-focused’ research and ‘solution-focused’ action. International experience demonstrates that cycling can be made safer. Strategies that have been implemented successfully overseas should be modified, trialled and evaluated in Australia so that the benefits of improved road safety in Australia are extended to all road user groups”.
And – if you don’t think policy makers can design roads and create rules better suited to the most vulnerable of road users in bike-unfriendly cities like Sydney – take note of the name Janette Sadik-Khan, the former Commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, and what she did for her town. “Congestion bugged me, the streets seemed very dangerous and unorganised,” she said. “So making our streets more accommodating to cyclists, making our streets more accommodating for people walking, was important.”
This June she was in Adelaide to speak at the Velo-Cities conference, and said city streets need to be redesigned to act more like social “living rooms” rather than congested thoroughfares. In the six years between 2007-13, and confronted with the seemingly impossible in one of the world’s most congested metropolises, apart from making one of the busiest cities in the world far more pedestrian-friendly (her transport department issued the first strategic plan in the agency’s history), she implemented NYC’s ‘1997 Bicycle Master Plan’. In her first year, the bike-riding civil servant increased the amount of separated bike lanes and shared lanes from 29 miles (47 kilometres) to 63 miles (101km); at the end of her tenure, an additional 254 miles (409km) had been added. (Here in Oz, the cost of a typical off-road path is about $1.5 million per kilometre; far more frugal than the highway billions spent by state and federal government.)
We need to look at cities like NYC and London (not to mention have our own Sadik-Khan!) because cycling is viewed and adopted similarly there as it is here, as a minority transport mode, in contrast to the oft-cited bike utopias of Amsterdam and Copenhagen. Through education and information, as opposed to misinformation, change of mindset leads to change of policy. Change of policy leads to change of infrastructure. And change of infrastructure leads to change of culture.
It won’t happen overnight, but it can happen.
And keep riding. As far as I’m concerned, the physical and mental benefits don’t just outweigh but overwhelm the risks. According to David Spiegelhalter, the Winton Professor of Risk at Cambridge University, for a person of average health, an hour’s cycling adds about an hour on to your life. The (very slight) risk of dying in an accident only takes a few minutes off that.
If you’re a city dweller like myself, okay yes, it’s marginally more dangerous than it was a decade ago. Yet because of what we read or see, many of us – me included to some extent before I delved a little deeper into this issue – think cycling is a lot more dangerous than it really is; a clear case of perception versus reality. Instead of having it drip-fed to us that riding is dangerous, perhaps we should tell everyone how (relatively) safe it is?
Besides, in numbers come strength (and, ultimately, safety). Despite those kooky conservatives doing their level best to dissuade us from enjoying one of life’s most simple yet beautiful pleasures, our numbers have been on the up. Like an annoying pimple, we’re quickly becoming too big to ignore. Critical mass is nigh; so is change.
Waiting for a change of culture could be more tiresome than watching paint dry, so in the meantime there’s a few things we can do to mitigate the risk of becoming a statistic, or augmenting the shock jock-fuelled anger already out there.
Put your lid on: no matter how short the journey. Don’t give the haters a reason to add fuel to the fire. Same goes for running reds.
Ditch the phones : both mobile and headphones. Taking calls or listening to music immediately reduces the heightened awareness associated with riding a bicycle; that ‘seventh sense’ is critical when negotiating the plethora ever-present dangers when out on the road. If you really need to, stop to take the call, and wait till you get home or work to pump up the volume on your favourite tunes.
Lose the footpath : unless you’re riding with a child under 12, in which case it’s perfectly legal to do so. Go ‘Backstreet Boys’ if the road you’d otherwise take is too busy. New roads equals new adventures.
Don’t ride in fear : “I often say that I cycle as though every motorist on the road is trying to kill me,” recently wrote one correspondent for the London Telegraph. Such a mindset is likely to lead to irrational judgements you wouldn’t otherwise make, and detracts from the enjoyment of why most of you ride in the first place: to be free of inhibition. As the saying goes, a life lived in fear is a life half-lived.
The 8/10 rule: in 79 per cent of reported cases involving a collision between a car and cyclist, the driver of the vehicle was deemed to be at fault. In other words, in the event of an accident eight times out of ten you’ve done nothing wrong, and have reason to feel aggrieved.
Keep riding: a 2013 Department of Infrastructure report said that each time someone gets on their bike for 20 minutes, the economy benefits by more than $21… Ker-ching! Plus, you’re vacating that bus or train seat, or parking space for somebody else, while simultaneously reducing your carbon footprint. Win-win you’d have to say.
Campaign for bike lanes : I’m convinced this is the answer to our highly urbanised, vehicle-reliant city culture. It’s working in NYC and London; it’ll work here. With proper segregation (or at the very least, separation) of car and cyclist, think of the number of short trips that could be made by bike rather than car or other form of motorised transport, and if the Department of Infrastructure analysis is correct, the amount the economy would benefit. Well-being can have a multiplier effect..