An academic study has found that cyclists in Britain are far more likely to be admitted to hospital following an accident than people traveling in cars.
The research, published in the BMJ journal Injury Prevention, covers a six-year period from 1999 to 2004, was carried out by a team at the University of Surrey, who say that greater efforts need to be made to make roads safer for cyclists.
The team, headed by Professor Mike Gill of the faculty of health and medical sciences, also said that studying seasonal patterns of hospital admissions showed a peak in the summer months as more people took to their bicycles.
That finding contrasts with official road safety advice which tends to assume that the winter months, with poor weather, wet roads and more hours of darkness, are when most injuries to cyclists occur.
Among adult cyclists, admissions peak during June, while for children on their bikes, August was the peak month. The picture differed for pedestrians, with adults more likely to be hospitalized in winter, while among children, April, May, June, September and October were the peak months.
Taking cyclists and pedestrians together, for the period April to September, more – 44,875 during the six-year period – were admitted to hospital with injuries compared to car occupants, whose admission numbers totalled 34,582 over the same time.
With car drivers and passengers making 40 times as many trips as cyclists annually, the study claimed that "per trip, cycling is more risky, as measured by hospital admission, at any time of the year than journeying by car".
The researchers wrote: "There is considerable current interest in obesity and in encouraging people to take more exercise, including making journeys on foot or cycle rather than by car."
Acknowledging that, "there is also an obvious environmental case for increasing the number of journeys made by non-motorised modes,” they added that “in some circumstances, when people feel that it is unsafe to cycle or walk they may be right.”
Professor Gill and his team believe that there needs to be a focus on providing safer road conditions for pedestrians and cyclists alike.
They said: "Encouragement of walking and cycling needs to be accompanied by serious efforts to ensure that safe traffic environments are established for pedestrians and cyclists. Better separation of pedestrians and cyclists from motorists and greater awareness among the latter of the risks faced by pedestrians and cyclists are important."
They maintain that the experience of countries such as Denmark and The Netherlands, which have much lower rates of cyclists killed and injured per distance traveled, showed that reducing levels of cyclist casualties here was achievable.
"This scale of variation between countries, and our findings of substantial seasonal variation, underline the scope for prevention of unnecessary injury," they added.
Debra Rolfe, campaign co-ordinator at cyclists’ organization CTC, told The Guardian: "It's important to remember that the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks by a factor of 20:1. Cyclists live two years longer than non-cyclists, have the health of someone 10 years younger and take 10% fewer sick days.”
She added: “CTC's Safety in Numbers research has shown that in places where more people cycle the risks of cycling is lower. In order to get more people cycling, we need to address the fears that deter people from cycling."
Speaking on BBC Breakfast, Allan Williams of Sustrans said that “more needs to be done to make cycling safer,” including ensuring that appropriate facilities were provided for them.
And when asked why casualty rates are much lower in countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark, he said that cycling is viewed as a safe, normal activity there, with 27% of local trips in the Netherlands undertaken by cyclists compared to 2% here.
“To make cycling safer, what you need to do is get more people cycling,” he concluded.
With the period covered by the research concluding in 2004, the unanswered question is whether the picture it paints has altered since then.
Although we don’t have hospital admission numbers for 2005 to 2009, the fact that there has been a continued long-term decline in the number of cyclists killed or injured on Britain’s roads at a time when increasing numbers of people have been taking to bicycles as a means of transport suggests that the situation is improving.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.