‘Safety In Numbers’? Or ‘Numbers from Safety’?

The CTC – among others – are quite keen on the ‘Safety In Numbers’ effect. A couple of years ago, they produced a pdf on it.

It contains this graph, showing an attractive correlation between the cyclist death rate, and the amount of distance cycled per person, in a number of European countries.

The CTC argue, in the document, that

Countries in Europe with high levels of cycle use tend to be less risky for cyclists. In Denmark, people cycle over 900 kilometres a year and it is a far safer country to cycle in than Portugal, where barely 30 km is covered by each person by bike annually.

Clearly, there is a correlation here between distance cycled, or number of cycling trips, and safety. That much is undeniable. But are we so clear about the the direction in which the correlation runs? The main thrust of the CTC argument seems to be based on the assumption that an increase in safety will arise from a greater numbers of cyclists making trips. In their words

Cycling gets safer the more people do it.

I think this is generally true. More people cycling should mean more awareness of cyclists, and so the averaged risk to a given cyclist will probably decrease.

But there is an alternative explanation that could lie behind the correlation exhibited in that graph, that the CTC don’t seem to focus on. Namely, that more people will cycle when they feel safe. Or, to invert the CTC slogan,

More people cycle when it gets safer.

This gives us two possible interpretations for the data point for the Netherlands in the graph above.

1) Dutch cyclists are safe, because the Dutch, as a nation, cycle a lot. 

2) The Dutch, as a nation, cycle a lot, because they feel (or are) safe.

Likewise, for the UK –

1) British cyclists are not as safe as their Dutch counterparts because, unlike the Dutch, we do not cycle a lot.

2) The British, as a nation, do not cycle a lot, because they are not (or do not feel) safe.

To be clear, I don’t think these two interpretations of the correlation are mutually exclusive. There is probably a great deal of interplay between them. But it is interesting how the second interpretation figures so little in the conventional explanations of the ‘Safety In Numbers’ effect. 

There are now significant numbers of cyclists at peak commuting hours on arterial roads in and out of London – the ‘Superhighways’ seem to have had the effect of concentrating cyclists’ movements on these roads. I suspect that this increase in numbers has indeed led to a decrease in the average cyclist’s exposure to risk. Nevertheless, the road environment doesn’t necessarily feel any safer for a cyclist, simply because of the greater numbers. And I think that is quite important if we are ever going to get the ‘numbers’ the CTC talk about.

For instance.

Eight cyclists are visible in this short clip, yet this seems (to me, at least) to be a deeply hostile and unpleasant environment to cycle in. All the regular motorists in this clip probably encounter hundreds of cyclists on a day-to-day basis, so they are certainly ‘aware’ of them. But the general attitude exhibited seems to be one of dangerous complacency, rather than consideration. They are used to cyclists – but only as objects they need to get past as quickly as possible.

Now, to be fair, the CTC do stress the need to make the road environment more welcoming and safe for cyclists. I suspect this is a tacit acknowledgement that a strategy of simply talking about how safe cycling actually is –

cycling isn’t as risky as commonly thought, with just one death every 32 million kilometres – that’s over 800 times around the world. Indeed not cycling is more risky than cycling: cyclists on average live two years longer than non-cyclists and take 15% fewer days off work through illness

– just isn’t going to cut it when it comes to getting people out there on bikes in significant numbers. Statistics about how they are actually going to extend their lives, on the basis of probability, by cycling aren’t really going to make up anyone’s mind when they are confronted with cycling conditions like those in the video above, ‘numbers’ or otherwise.

The starting point for cycle campaigning should be to make cycling seem safer and more attractive. The numbers will come.

By contrast, we shouldn’t simply endeavour to boost the numbers of people cycling in the hope that, somewhere down the line, cycling will become safer and more attractive.

Let’s not get the cart before the horse.

This entry was posted in CTC, Cycle Superhighways, Road safety, Safety In Numbers, The Netherlands. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to ‘Safety In Numbers’? Or ‘Numbers from Safety’?

  1. Quite right. “Safety in numbers” is way over-emphasized. The “safety” you’re looking for in order to increase cycling is “subjective safety“.

  2. Laurence says:

    Excellent points raised.
    I wrote about something different but related recently…there is plenty of talk about why people should ride bikes but very little about why people don’t ride bikes…I think by tackling the reasons why people don’t ride bikes will be more conducive to more cycling than simply trumpetting why people should ride.


  3. Dave says:

    There is an interesting implication in the claim that “More people cycle when it gets safer.” If that is the case, and that helmet usage is much lower in NL than in GB, then this would imply that wearing a helmet doesn’t make people feel safer (or at least not as much as other things the Dutch do that Brits don’t).

    I would argue that the causal direction flows both ways – more cyclists lead to safer cycling and that safer cycling leads to more cyclists. Given that govt can’t increase cycling numbers by forcing people to cycle, then it seems that if we want to increase cycling (and therefore safety) govt action should be focusing on making cycling feel safer. And the best way to do this is by ensuring that cyclists don’t end up in the path of a bus or under a truck.

  4. mikey2gorgeous says:

    When I started to become active in cycle campaigning (only a handful of years ago), I strongly believed in the Safety in Numbers effect. I still believe it is a real effect which does have an impact on real safety. If you look at the original research and reasons for it’s evolution, especially the Australian Helmet law example, it can’t be denied.

    However, we will never achieve significant modal share for cycling without implementing ‘Dutch style’ infrastructure. David is correct that subjective safety will lead to more cycling. Also, prioritising cycling over cars so that when people decide to go somewhere they think “I’ll take my bike because it’s easier/quicker/nicer”.

    The graph above isn’t just about SinN effect – it’s also a reflection of the political will in certain countries to make cycling a realistic choice for all.

    When the political will is there, when we have investment and design that is truly pro-cycling, then we will see an increase in modal share which will have an additional effect with SinN. I can’t see it happening any time soon though.

  5. The above comments are all correct.

    The most important practical point about this graph is that within it is not just a two-way correlation but a clear three-way correlation between safety, numbers, and provision of physically-segregated cycling infrastructure. The countries above the 200km per person per year ordinate have all invested in extensive networks of segregated cycle tracks. Those just below the 200 level, Italy and Austria, have some good segregated infrastructure but not so extensive. The countries lower down do not have such infrastructure. The Netherlands now has more and better infrastructure than Denmark, and I think these figures are out of date and the mode share is now higher in The Netherlands than Denmark. I may be corrected on that, nevertheless, it appears that the correlation with infrastructure is pretty much perfect. The scientific conclusion is that to get the numbers and safety you need the quality segregated infrastructure – full stop.

    I have been making this point about the three-way correlation for about 10 years now, since I wrote an article about it (with Paul Gannon) in London Cyclist October 2002. The infrastructure leg of the correlation is the one that CTC never mentions. Few other people in this country were pointing to it until very recently, most cycling campaigners going along with John Franklin’s absurd belief that high cycling levels were due to vaguely-defined “historic cycling cultures” and nothing to do with infrastructure. In the last year, however, a considerable number of blogs like this one have appeared making the same point.

    The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain is a new national organisation which is taking up this challenge to campaign so we do get proper cycling infrastructure in the UK “some time soon”. It need not take long at all if enough people get behind the campaign. The Embassy is holding its second meeting this Saturday in Manchester. I hope to see some of you there.


  6. @Dave “If that is the case, and that helmet usage is much lower in NL than in GB, then this would imply that wearing a helmet doesn’t make people feel safer”

    Wearing a helmet must make some cyclists feel safer, otherwise they wouldn’t bother with the cost and inconvenience. The problem is that seeing cyclists wearing helmets makes non-cyclists think that cycling is an activity in which you are likely to have your head bashed on a regular basis. Non-cyclists are regularly astonished that we, as a family, don’t wear cycle helmets: and will actually make a point of commenting about this as if we’re being reckless.

    Helmet usage by cyclists positively discourages ordinary people from cycling.

    Cycling in the UK must be dangerous: to do it you are constantly told to wear a helmet and fluorescent clothing, and preferably you should go on a series of Bikeability training courses.

    • Edward says:

      “Helmet usage by cyclists positively discourages ordinary people from cycling.” Totally agree.

      We have had mandatory helmet laws here in Australia for 20 years now. There is still not a shred of evidence that they have in any way reduced head injuries. It is for that reason that Australia and New Zealand are still the only two countries on the planet with national mandatory helmet laws and through sheer pig-headedness, we refuse to budge. Do not allow them to be introduced over there. If they are, you will never raise your cycling modal share above what it is now. Once they are introduced it is nigh on impossible to repeal them because helmets are not a big political issue, especially not when there are so few people cycling – as is the case here.

      After they are introduced and the few cyclists remaining are all wearing them, you will begin to hear hundreds of stories every year of people who fell off their bike “on to their head” and the helmet “saved their life”. Invariably, they will be “keen cyclists”. It has got to the point here that some of the strongest advocates for helmet laws are cyclists and cycling organisations themselves. It is no accident that almost everyone you see riding a bike over here is dressed in tights, fluorescent jacket, helmet, goggles, funny shoes, etc.

      It is horrible. Fight it.

  7. dexey says:

    I wear my helmet because when I have fallen at low speeds I have banged my head and it hurt. It has nothing to do with notions of safety if another vehicle should hit me.
    When we get proper segregation I will continue wearing my helmet.

    • stabiliser says:

      I banged my head on a low ceiling in my bedroom the other day – it hurt.

      It hasn’t convinced me that I need to wear a helmet around the house.

    • Pain is the body’s learning mechanism: it teaches you not to do that again. People who don’t feel pain end up injuring themselves all the time.

      Rather than trying to increase your safety, consider trying to reduce the danger. Continuing to fall off your bike with a helmet on isn’t as good a long-term strategy as learning not to fall off your bike.

      This is why I strongly recommend that children in particular should NOT wear helmets. Children are in learning mode more than adults are, and they need to learn the things that will be most useful to them long-term.

    • OldGreyBeard says:

      I wear a helmet because my wife prefers me to do so. This is because the husband of an old friend was knocked of his bike, was not wearing a helmet, and suffered brain damage wich in the end desroyed their marriage. Now I have no way of knowing whether wearing a helmet would have changed this outcome BUT I do know that the lawyer for the motorist sought to claim contributory negligence on the part of the cyclist.

      I would prefer not to wear a helmet but then my wife would not be keen for me to cycle in traffic.

  8. dexey says:

    @ Stabiliser
    “I banged my head on a low ceiling in my bedroom the other day – it hurt.

    It hasn’t convinced me that I need to wear a helmet around the house.”

    It obviously didn’t hurt you enough. My last was 20 years ago; I still have the scars on my brow ridges.

  9. OldGreyBeard says:

    I’ve been thinking about this issue since reading this blog and in particular about the way in which the causality runs i.e. do numbers create safety or does does safety create numbers.

    It seems like the classic chicken & egg problem. BUT there is plenty of evidence

    (See TfL – Analysis of Cycling Potential

    Click to access analysis-of-cycling-potential.pdf.pdf

    DfT – Climate Change & Transport Choices

    that most people see cycling on the roads as too dangerous which would seem to support the idea that safety has to come first.

    As a concrete example we have been walking our daughter to school, about half a mile, for five years now along a road which is used as a rat run. It wouldn’t be possible for a child to cycle along it and to be honest it’s not much fun as either a cyclist or a motorist. There are cars parked on the very narrow pavement, they seem to be speeding a lot of the time and I’ve even seen them drive on the pavement to get past a temporary obstruction.

    Now if there were 1000 cyclists on it between 8:30 and 8:45 then it would indeed be safe to cycle as the cyclists would dominate but even now after all the promotion work done by the cycle town project there are hardly 10 bikes. So the question is, is it possible to get from less than 10 to a level which makes it safe?

    I don’t think so, because a large enough pool of people who would be willing to cycle along it doesn’t exist.

    Is there not also an ancilliary effect of going for numbers first in that when the numbers to achieve safety for the majority are not reached then cycling becomes a sort of extreme sport practised by a self-selected group of people who see no reason to change. If I were being provocative I’d call that group the CTC!

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