People say fear of accidents is why they won’t cycle, but if bicycles disappear off the streets we'll lose one of the greatest tools we have to keep our cities safer and greener.
Because of cars, road use – all road use – is dangerous. Being on the road is the greatest risk most of us will ever take in our lives, whatever our vehicle choice. And yes, as a Vulnerable Road User – that's a cyclist, pedestrian, motorcyclist or skateboarder – your chances of dying in a collision with a car are greater than they are for the driver.
The overall risk that you'll be in a serious road accident, however, is in fact not substantially greater for cyclists than other road users.
UK researchers at the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, who conducted a study on cycling risk, concluded that previous government statistics in several countries have overstated the risks involved with cycling, and underestimated those associated with walking and driving.
For young men aged 17-20, the study found that driving actually carried higher risk than cycling.
Furthermore this study, together with the majority of studies on the risks of cycling versus the benefits, also agree that the years of healthy life gained outweigh the dangers from accidents and pollution.
South African cyclists and pedestrians do face another kind of risk: we can get attacked. With both kinds of danger – accident and assault – we can decide to give up, retreat indoors, and concede the roads to the motorised and our public spaces to criminals.
But tempting as that option may sometimes be, I don't believe most of us are prepared to hand over the keys of our city to cars and crooks just yet.
Here's what we can do instead:
Keep cycling, whenever and wherever possible. The more bikes on the roads, the safer it is for bikes on the roads. Research has shown that increasing the numbers of cyclists and pedestrians actually reduces the chance you will be hit by a car while cycling or walking; tripling the rate of cycling cuts the crash rate in half. The reason for this seems to be that motorists adjust their behaviour in the presence of people walking and bicycling, and become more aware and cautious. In Portland, Oregon (second only to Amsterdam as a top cyclist-friendly city), bicycle use has quadrupled over the last 20 years without any increase in crashes.
Don't cycle like a twit. A bicycle may be a traffic-calming mechanism, according to the above research, but you can undo some of that good work if you rile motorists up unnecessarily. Obey the rules of the road.
Wear a helmet. A helmet indicates to motorists that you're serious about safety and following the letter of the law. Oh, and it could save you from quadriplegia and death. Three-quarters of fatal bicycle crashes in New York involve a head injury and 97% of bicyclists who die aren't wearing a helmet. Bright coloured cycling gear, reflectors, bicycle bells and those helpfully annoying flags that protrude laterally to show motorists how much leeway you need – use them too.
Join the critical mass of bicycle commuter activists and initiatives. These are growing world-wide and are now taking off in South African cities too. Getting involved and linking up with others is the best way to make cycling more visible and have it taken seriously. See Be a Road Warrior to find out about “crowd commuting” and social awareness rides near you.
Image of bicycle: Shutterstock
Olivia Rose-Innes is Health24’s EnviroHealth Editor. Read more of her columns and articles or post a question to her expert forum.