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Perceptions of Bicycle Safety


Always play it safe!

Safety is a hot topic these days. The public fears danger and craves safety. Parents are afraid to let their kids play out of their sight. Drivers buy huge motor vehicles, for protection against other huge vehicles. Aspirin bottles have seals that can defy a safecracker.

You can't be too safe!

What does this have to do with bicycling? Plenty, it seems, because everyone "knows" about bikes and safety. People say "You could get run over, you know," or "A simple fall could leave you brain damaged!" In his book The Polar Bear Strategy, author John F. Ross cheerfully admitted to camping near potentially man-eating bears, but he expressed fear for cyclists riding on quiet streets!

Better safe than sorry!

Yes, many find bicycling very scary, because they "know" about the dangers of bicycling.

Or do they know? What do they really know about the danger - or the safety - of bicycling? What do you know?

Let's find out. This article is arranged in the form of a brief quiz. Answer each question with your best guess before moving on.

Don't be afraid to make a mistake. We won't give out your score. We're not even keeping score.  Your secret's safe with us.

So, we're going to talk about the scary stuff. We're going to talk about the dangers of riding a bike. And this is the scariest: "You can get killed riding your bike!"

Of course, you can get killed doing other things too. So let's start with a comparison:

1. Rank these activities from MOST dangerous (#1) to LEAST dangerous (#5). Here, we're talking about the number of fatalities per million hours of people doing these activities.

a) bicycling ____
b) swimming ____
c) on-road motorcycling ____
d) flying in small planes ____
e) walking near traffic ____


Of course, fatalities aren't the only measure of safety. People can be injured - perhaps badly enough to need Emergency Room treatment. So:

2. Rank these in order, giving #1 to the item causing the most ER visits per year in the USA; Give #5 to the activity or device causing the fewest ER visits per year.

a) bicycling ____
b) basketball ____
c) beds ____
d) carpets & rugs ____
e) chairs & sofas ____


But don't people fall off their bikes, hit their heads and die? Isn't that why you're told to never ride without a helmet?

Let's do a multiple choice question:

3. Of all the people who die of head injuries in the US, what percentage are killed while riding bicycles?

a) 30% b) 20% c) 10% d) 5% e) less than 1%


Still, you can fall off your bike! Everybody knows that! So let's talk about crashes while cycling.

4. On average, how often do enthusiastic cyclists (that is, bike club members) crash badly enough to damage equipment or require medical treatment?

Roughly every: a) 1500 miles b) 5000 miles c) 10000 miles d) 30000 miles e) 100000 miles


So serious crashes are not common. But we do know that cyclists sometimes end up at the hospital, so let's go back to the ER data. A trip to the ER for any reason sounds pretty serious! So:

5. For a cyclist being treated in an ER, rank the most common injury being treated #1, and rank the least common injury #5:

a) minor injuries to legs (like skinned knees) ______
b) minor injuries to arms (like skinned elbows) ______
c) minor injuries to shoulders ______
d) moderate or worse injuries to arms ______
e) moderate or worse head injuries ______

(For those who know about the Abbreviated Injury Severity scale, we'll define "minor" as AIS #1: scratches, bruises, etc. AIS #2 injuries are described as "moderate," #3 are "serious," #4 are "severe," #5 "critical," and #6 " unsurvivable.")


So, what do the data tell us? 

To review the answers from questions #4 and #5: Eventually, you will fall off your bike - face it!

But, you almost certainly won't get badly hurt. Even a trip to the ER is rare. If you do go to the ER, it's probably not going to be for something serious. The modern idea that every fall off a bike is a near-death experience is clearly false!

6. Now let's return to fatalities. 

Question #1, risk of fatality per hour, deliberately left out one of the most common activities: driving or riding in cars. If we now compare motoring and cycling, which is more dangerous, in terms of fatalities per hour?

We must realize that the relative levels of danger are not the same in all countries. And certainly, different countries have different agencies collecting different data in different ways. We can't expect the answers to match.

Still, how do you suppose cycling and motoring compare in the following countries? Take your guess for: 

  • France, 

  • Germany, 

  • Sweden, 

  • Switzerland, 

  • Netherlands, 

  • Australia, 

  • USA, and 

  • Great Britain. 

For each of those, regarding risk of fatality: is an hour of cycling safer, or more dangerous than an hour of motoring?

But saying something is "more dangerous" does not mean that activity is dangerous in any absolute sense. Washing dishes may be more dangerous than dusting, but that doesn't mean we must use only paper plates! So let's get a feeling for the actual level of danger.

7. For the country whose comparison was worst, Great Britain, let's look again at dedicated cyclists - the members of Britain's Cyclists Touring Club, or CTC. These are people who frequently do long club rides, or who tour by bicycle. These people ride their bikes a lot.

On average, how many person-years of CTC riding are there between fatalities? Or to put it another way, how long would the average CTC member have to ride to reach a 50% chance of dying on the bike?

a) 100 person-years of cycling per fatality
b) 500 person-years of cycling per fatality
c) 1500 person-years of cycling per fatality
d) 15000 person-years of cycling per fatality.


So, contrary to public belief, you are not likely to be killed by cycling. In fact, most people are far more likely to be killed while riding in a car.

Next: If cycling doesn't cause you to die, is there a chance it will help you to live?

8. Of the four top causes of all deaths (not just accidental deaths) in the USA, how many does cycling reduce or help prevent? a) 1 b) 2 c) 3 d) 4


9. But perhaps that's not a fair comparison. Consider: if an 18 year old is killed while riding his bike, he may have lost 60 years of life. Perhaps an older gentleman who rides his bike daily postpones a fatal heart attack by five years. 60 years lost to five years gained - is that a good trade?

So for all of society on average, in terms of years-of-life gained versus years-of-life-lost due to cycling: how does cycling do? Out of these approximations, pick your choice:

a) one year of life is gained for every 10 years of life lost. (10 to 1 against biking)
b) one year of life is gained for every year of life lost. (approximately a tie)
c) 10 years of life are gained for every year of life lost. (10 to 1 in favor of biking)
d) 20 years of life are gained for every year of life lost. (20 to 1 in favor of biking)


We've looked at a lot of data in terms of hours. Now let=s look at mileage, instead.

10. Roughly how many miles do cyclists ride, on average, between bike fatalities? (This will be a rough average, putting together data from USA, Britain, and Australia)

a) 15,000 miles of cycling per fatality
b) 150,000 miles 
c) 1.5 million miles 
d) 15 million miles 
e) 150 million miles per fatality


Finally, a bonus question: Take your average annual mileage on your bike. Given the answer to the last question - 15 million miles of cycling per fatality - if you were of average skill, how many years would you have to ride to have a 50% chance of dying on your bike?

As an example for that bonus question, let's consider a person who rides 3000 miles per year. Most people consider that to be a lot of cycling, although some ride much more. Dividing 3000 miles into 15 million miles per fatality, yields a 50/50 chance of dying on the bike after riding for 5000 years. And that's assuming the person riding 3000 miles per year has only average skill!


That brings us to the most important fact about Bicycle Safety:

1) Bike Safety: We already have it! Cycling is NOT very dangerous!

I think, for the general public, this would be a surprise. I've had people say "You ride your bike to work? Isn't that dangerous?" I've had people say "Oh, please be careful out there" - in the tone of voice they'd use for a person crossing Niagara Falls on a tightrope. Clearly, they think cycling is dangerous.

Even avid cyclists frequently have a mistaken attitude. They cheerfully sign registration forms that say "I understand that cycling is a hazardous activity," and they give dire warnings about the terrible things that can happen if you make the smallest mistake.

Do people make mistakes? Of course! We've all seen people riding bikes facing traffic, ignoring traffic lights, riding at night without lights, making improper turns, and riding bikes with bad brakes. Even some avid cyclists do those things!

But is cycling a hazardous activity? No! It's hourly fatality rate in the US seems to be about half that of riding in a car; about 1/4 that of going for a swim. In absolute numbers, drowning during recreational swimming outnumber bike fatalities at least three to one!

Cycling is not even on the map for head injury fatalities. Despite the dire warnings of the past decade, cycling is less than one percent of the head injury fatality problem in the U.S. (Riding in cars is roughly 50% of it, yet nobody proposes car helmets!)

And cycling has benefits that balance out the cost to society of any injury that might occur. Should we tell people to stay off bikes, and use their cars more? If we do, there will be more air pollution, more traffic fatalities, more obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and yes, more fatal head injuries.

What about having good equipment? Sadly, it's very easy to find bikes with bad brakes, loose parts, or suspicious-looking tires. Some cyclists even claim you shouldn't ride without the very latest equipment, saying the equipment used ten years ago had significant safety problems!

But that, too, is false. Equipment that's completely broken - a brake that fails, or a crank that breaks in two - causes a small percentage of bike crashes. But again, "bike crashes" does not mean fatalities; it means falling off a bike. And if your bike's equipment is in good working order, it doesn't matter that your pedals were made in 1994 instead of 2004.

So again, the first point to remember is: We have bike safety!


2) It does us no good to pretend that cycling is dangerous.

The acceptance of the "cycling is dangerous" idea is bad for cyclists. For example, cyclists are sometimes harmed by negligent, or even aggressive, motorists. Too often, police aren't willing to ticket motorists who are at fault, because they feel that in something as risky as cycling, you deserve whatever you get. Too often, cyclists do badly in the courts, because prosecutors, judges and juries think cyclists should expect to get hurt.

The assumption that cycling is dangerous also leads to some terrible facility design. Examples are sidewalk bike paths that run cyclists through blind curves, alongside collision hazards, over terrible pavement - anything to keep cyclists away from cars. Why? Because designers believe riding near cars is so dangerous!

There are communities that impose restrictive and inconsistent laws against cyclists. Astoundingly, there are municipalities that require riding on sidewalks, which are much more dangerous than roads, or even require walking bikes across all intersections. This is because the lawmakers know nothing about cycling, but they "know" that cycling is very dangerous.

But overall, the "cycling is dangerous" idea hurts us worst by reducing the amount of cycling. Many people are afraid to ride a bicycle! Researchers have shown that when there are more cyclists, cycling is actually safer . Perhaps it's because motorists become accustomed to watching for cyclists and dealing with cyclists. Perhaps it's because when cycling is more common, transportation planners do a better job of accommodating cyclists. But cycling is even safer when there are more cyclists.

Cycling should also be more pleasant when there are more cyclists. There would likely be bike racks on buses, bike parking in front of shopping centers, and perhaps special bike access connecting neighborhoods with adjoining shopping centers.

Pretending cycling is a hazardous activity scares others away from cycling. It makes our society even more car-dependent, and it makes it worse for those of us who do ride bikes.

So, again:


Finally, it's good to remember a sad fact: The average cyclist's skill is not impressive. Most cyclists perform worse on the bike than they do when driving a car - and anyone who's complained about motorists knows that's sad, indeed! It's estimated that half of cyclists' serious injuries are caused by the cyclists' own mistakes, at least in America. And Jerrold Kaplan4 found that experienced cyclists who only "occasionally" obeyed traffic laws had an accident rate 38 percent higher than those who "usually" and "always" obeyed laws.

In a way, this is good news. It means that not only is cycling safe, on average, but it's even safer for a competent, lawful cyclist. Ride by the rules, and your risks are even lower.

In summary:

Cycling is not very dangerous
It's at least as safe as many other common activities.

And it does us no good to pretend cycling is dangerous
Doing so discourages cycling and makes conditions worse for cyclists, and for society as a whole.

Now get out there and spread the word!



By Frank Krygowski


This article is meant to be taken as an informative self test. 


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