Govt stats over-state the risks of cycling says new research (it's pedestrians & young male drivers who have to worry)

Cycling safer for young men under 20 than driving - overall risk on a par with walking

by Tony Farrelly   December 6, 2012  

Commuter cyclist

Cycling is not as risky as official statistics suggest says new research - in fact, for young men it is safer than driving. In an odd coincidence, the research was published at the exact moment a controversial BBC documentary portraying cycling as a high risk mode of transport finished airing last night.

According to the research by a team from the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London (UCL), official statistics consistently overstate the risks involved with cycling and underestimate those associated with walking and driving -  their most eye-catching findings is that cycling is a safer than driving for young men between 17-20 years old.

In fact, according to the researchers' data, it isn't until men are in their thirties (and possibly even later) that driving becomes safer than cycling. The paper also concludes that cycling and walking carry broadly the same risk factor. It also points out that the risks associated with each of walking, driving or cycling are very low in the UK.

“Perceived road danger is a strong disincentive to cycling and many potential cyclists do not ride on the road due to safety concerns,” says the report's lead author, Dr Jennifer Mindell.

“But research regarding the safety of cycling tends to be distorted by a number of errors which are found repeatedly in published papers and policy documents, with many substantially overstating cycling injuries and under-reporting pedestrian injuries.”

The UCL team suggests that Government calculations of risk for cycling would be more accurate if cycling were only compared to the data for driving on general purpose roads - stripping out motorways - or adding in train journeys an an equivalent to long distance car travel, which on motorways is much safer than on any other road.

Another suggestion is that when it comes to risk, cyclists should be compared to low mileage drivers whose risk factor is between 15 and 100 per cent higher than the average for a driver, which would give a truer reflection of like for like risk.

According to their research, those most at risk when travelling are men aged between 17 and 20 for driving, males aged over 70 for cycling and females aged over 70 for walking. In general, fatality rates were substantially higher among males than females.

The team went on to compare the UK data with figures from the Netherlands – a country widely perceived to be bike-friendly. They found a similar pattern in both countries, with teenage male cyclists less likely to suffer serious injury or death than those travelling by car.

“This research dispels the idea that risk for UK cyclists is substantially higher than for drivers or pedestrians, and hopefully will encourage more people to take up something which is not only good for health, but also the environment,” said Dr Mindell.

“An individual who cycles one hour a day for 40 years would cover about 180,000km, whilst accumulating only a one in 150 chance of fatal injury. This is lower than for pedestrians who face a higher fatality rate per kilometre travelled,” she added. “The health benefits of cycling are much greater than the fatality risk.”

Active travel - defined as walking or cycling - is estimated to save £17bn in healthcare costs alone, according to a recent Lancet paper.

The UCL report also chimes with last week's recommendations from the National Institute for Health & Clinical Excellence (NICE), which advises the Government on health policy, that cycling should be at the heart of the strategy to boost the nation's health and more should be done to dispel the fears about its safey that stop many people riding bikes.

The researchers compiled their data by looking at hospital admissions and deaths in England between 2007 and 2009 for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers. These were studied by age group and gender.

Using National Travel Survey data in England for the same time period, the team converted the distance travelled by each age group, gender and mode of transport into time spent travelling using mean trip speeds.

They also looked at distances travelled too, but as they explain in they paper felt that time was the least distorting measure when it came to assessing risk - for example, long distance car journeys on motorways decreases the risk for motorists when that risk is evaluated by distance travelled against other modes of transport, because cycling and walking don't have an equivalent type of journey.

However time spent travelling per day - on average an hour - is pretty much the same, no matter what mode of transport people use.

“What we found is that risks were similar for men aged between 21 and 49 for all three modes of transport and for female pedestrians and drivers aged between 21 and 69 years,” said Dr Mindell.

“However, we found that for young male cyclists between 17 and 20 years of age, cycling was markedly safer than travelling by car."

According to Dr Mindell and her colleagues the main factor skewing current official casualty statistics for cycling as a form of transport is that cycling casualty statistics gathered from emergency service Stats 19 reports and hospital admissions data count falls and non-highway injuries and fatalities - things like mountain biking or BMX - in the overall casualty statistics but don't count falls for pedestrians at all, whether on or off the highway.

They also point out that 'hospital admission,' the current definition of 'serious injury' in the official statistics, doesn't give an accurate representation of the different severities of injury between modes of transport, whereas length of hospital stay does.

According to their research the mean length of hospital stay after a traffic collision was 2.9 days for cyclists and drivers, but 4.7 days for pedestrians.

The UCL research paper, Cycling Risk is published in the open access online journal PLOS ONE.

11 user comments

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Having recently seen a young gentleman approach queueing traffic at 40mph whilst texting two handed, I'm not surprised riding a bike is safer for some.

--
"Tant que je respire, j'attaque!"

John_the_Monkey's picture

posted by John_the_Monkey [421 posts]
6th December 2012 - 10:24

8 Likes

Finally. A positive report on this subject with supporting data as opposed to conjecture. I have stated in previous threads mortality statistics that now support this report. Rather than trying to put us off cycling, we should have more of this to encourage people to either get back on their bikes or to take it up

posted by Andyd64 [13 posts]
6th December 2012 - 12:24

8 Likes

Yep, a very good report. If you add to it the fact that increased cycling reduces traffic congestion, it all makes a very strong case for encouraging increased use of bicycles for urban commuting.

While I own a car, I certainly don't use it to get to and from work. It's much quicker by public transport or on 2 wheels.

OldRidgeback

posted by OldRidgeback [2205 posts]
6th December 2012 - 12:45

8 Likes

There are tonnes of compelling statistical analyses that show that cycling isn't risky and the health benefits outweigh the risks of mortality. That's why many scientists cycle regularly.

However, talk to anyone who doesn't cycle regularly and you will hear the same response – 'traffic's too fast, roads are too busy, lorries pass too close, I just don't feel safe on a bike'. The issue is perception – it's an emotional reaction which no amount of logic can overcome. The solution is better road design in urban areas that increases separation between cyclists and motorised traffic and measures to reclaim residential roads for cyclists, pedestrians and children by preventing rat-running.

posted by Campag_10 [153 posts]
6th December 2012 - 12:50

12 Likes

Campag_10 wrote:

However, talk to anyone who doesn't cycle regularly and you will hear the same response – 'traffic's too fast, roads are too busy, lorries pass too close, I just don't feel safe on a bike'. The issue is perception – it's an emotional reaction which no amount of logic can overcome.

Sadly I think Campag is right and this paper will change nobody's perceptions. Anecdote trumps stats every time for the public.

posted by Chuck [381 posts]
6th December 2012 - 13:59

9 Likes

Campag_10 wrote:
There are tonnes of compelling statistical analyses that show that cycling isn't risky and the health benefits outweigh the risks of mortality. That's why many scientists cycle regularly.

However, talk to anyone who doesn't cycle regularly and you will hear the same response – 'traffic's too fast, roads are too busy, lorries pass too close, I just don't feel safe on a bike'. The issue is perception – it's an emotional reaction which no amount of logic can overcome. The solution is better road design in urban areas that increases separation between cyclists and motorised traffic and measures to reclaim residential roads for cyclists, pedestrians and children by preventing rat-running.

Agreed. Unfortunately perception isn't helped by negative articles not put into perspective against other risks (as this one does) rather like RCC have posted in the last few weeks, and certainly won't be helped by last night's BBC programme showing isolated incidents. It would help if such programmes stated the percentage of these incidents against the hassle free journeys, but of course, all media like to hype things up and thus creates a warped perception. I have friends who say the thought of cycling scares them for the very reasons you have stated, yet have never tried, so yes their perception is emotional. They are unlikely to go out and buy a bike to give it a try to find out. It makes you wander just how many people would otherwise cycle

posted by Andyd64 [13 posts]
6th December 2012 - 14:58

11 Likes

Quote:
Anecdote trumps stats every time for the public.

Spot on Chuck. My mate told me so.

posted by Littlesox [89 posts]
6th December 2012 - 23:10

9 Likes

Chuck wrote:
Campag_10 wrote:

However, talk to anyone who doesn't cycle regularly and you will hear the same response – 'traffic's too fast, roads are too busy, lorries pass too close, I just don't feel safe on a bike'. The issue is perception – it's an emotional reaction which no amount of logic can overcome.

Sadly I think Campag is right and this paper will change nobody's perceptions. Anecdote trumps stats every time for the public.

It's not just anecdote though.

Cycling is safe, but it's not particularly pleasant, and it's not made easy by anyone with meaningful power to make it easy either. Commuting in Manchester, I'll have numerous unpleasantly close passes per day, usually some degree of hassle (from tail gating (common) through pinch points to "punishment" passes and verbal abuse (less common, thankfully). I'll have a few near misses each month into the bargain too, generally.

Five plus years of experience on the same route, and not trusting drivers to do the right thing EVER has kept me out of serious trouble, mostly.

Cycling with my daughter to a local farm shop recently, I was staggered by the complete lack of consideration shown for someone who was, evidently a child, by a great many motorists. Coincidentally, she'd ride this route going to school, something we'd feel hugely uncomfortable about given our experiences outside of school run times. (For a school run, double the amount of traffic and impatience, add buses, and have the whole lot weaving in and out of illegally parked cars and vans).

Added to that, a general, underlying hostility in the media and populace means I can find myself defending my choice of transport against unreasonable prejudice every so often too. An assumption that we're encroaching on space belonging to cars means that we fight an uphill battle when things do go wrong too.

Now I like cycling enough that I persevere despite that, and I must admit, the ability to stuff my face with cake and not put on a pound is a nice benefit. But someone who just wanted to get to work? I can easily see why they'd make an entirely reasonable decision to say "F* this for a game of soldiers." To diminish that as succumbing to "anecdote" is to miss the point. Imo.

--
"Tant que je respire, j'attaque!"

John_the_Monkey's picture

posted by John_the_Monkey [421 posts]
7th December 2012 - 9:36

11 Likes

Cycling is safe BUT the statistics don't tell the whole story. Currently, regular cyclists are mainly drawn from a relatively small population group - young (under 45) and male, they are fit enough to "take the lane" and attain the 20 mile an hour sprint speed that John Franklin suggests you need to get out of trouble. This self selecting group are obviously going to skew the KSI stats (Killed and Seriously Injured). It would be interesting (and I'd suggest tragic) if you were to add children and the elderly onto UK roads (like the Dutch cycling population).

In the UK 3 times more people are killed per billion miles cycled than in the Netherlands DESPITE the fact that 40% of all journeys under 2 miles in the Netherlands made by 8 to 18 year olds are by bike.

As for the comment regarding journeys made by 17 - 21 year old males, sorry, that's just "stating the bleeding obvious".

posted by shockleader [20 posts]
7th December 2012 - 12:29

11 Likes

"only a one in 150 chance of fatal injury"

I fail to see how that is not a bad thing, If the whole population cycled regularly then 400,000 people would die in cycling accidents.

posted by kie7077 [480 posts]
9th December 2012 - 23:09

8 Likes

Suspect that if the 'whole population cycled regularly' the stats would change in favour of the cyclist

posted by Boltsy [2 posts]
10th December 2012 - 14:47

14 Likes