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Serious incidents are rare – but it doesn’t always feel like that when you’re cycling

“Terrifying near misses are a normal, everyday experience for people cycling on Britain’s streets.” That is the conclusion of Dr Rachel Aldred after running the Near Miss Project for the last few months. She believes that the uncontrollable nature of the threats experienced while on a bike provides an insight into why people apparently overestimate the risk of cycling.

Senior transport lecturer, Dr Rachel Aldred, and cycle light company, Blaze, teamed up last autumn to try and gauge the frequency of near misses and to evaluate the impact they have on cyclists. Nearly 1,700 riders across Britain kept a record of all trips and any incidents experienced on their chosen ‘diary day’ and Aldred and her team have since been reviewing what was reported.

In an article for The Guardian, Aldred writes:

“Running through many of the stories we gathered is a feeling of systematic disregard for cyclist safety and comfort – on the part of motorists, traffic engineers, designers and policymakers. Cyclists spoke of feeling powerless and humiliated, of feeling that despite their best efforts there may be nothing that they can do to prevent injury.”

Aldred cites an apparent discrepancy between a fear of cycling among many people and actual injury figures. She says that a regular commuting cyclist might only experience a slight injury once every decade, with a much lower chance of serious injury, and argues that it may therefore be near misses which are leading people to conclude that cycling is a dangerous activity.

She believes that it is both infrastructure and the behaviour of other road users that contributes to this.

“The data paints a picture of streets where road users who pose the least risk to others are systematically marginalised, through a combination of dangerous road environments and thoughtless to hostile behaviour.

“Most people in the project experienced several incidents on their diary day, with around one in seven of these classed as ‘very scary’, often involving buses, coaches or HGVs. This means terrifying near misses are a normal, everyday experience for people cycling on Britain’s streets and, where larger vehicles are involved, a small error could have catastrophic consequences.”

Almost a third of the reported incidents involved cyclists being tailgated or drivers passing too close. Aldred says that the lack of control felt by the cyclist in these situations exacerbates how they are likely to feel about the experience. She has also previously highlighted pinch points that narrow the carriageway with the aim of forcing motorists to slow down as being another major source of anxiety.

Aldred argues that all of these near misses contribute to an ‘invisible everyday burden of fear’ and says that there is an urgent need to separate cyclists from the most frightening situations.

“As we have seen recently in London, measures to build proper infrastructure, that protects people cycling rather than putting them at risk, will be opposed by powerful organisations and individuals. Reading the diaries we collected in the Near Miss Project brings home to me the urgent need to separate cyclists from the most frightening situations, and to change our road culture away from one that implicitly prioritises the most dangerous vehicles.”

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