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

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.

Plucked from the obscurity of his London commute back in the mid-Nineties to live in Bath and edit bike mags our man made the jump to the interweb back in 2006 as launch editor of a large cycling website somewhat confusingly named after a piece of navigational equipment. He came up with the idea for road.cc mainly to avoid being told what to do… Oh dear, issues there then. Tony tries to ride his bike every day and if he doesn't he gets grumpy, he likes carbon, but owns steel, and wants titanium. When not on his bike or eating cake Tony spends his time looking for new ways to annoy the road.cc team. He's remarkably good at it.