‘A very safe activity’

David Hembrow has recently posted a piece about a family in Cambridge who are considering giving up cycling – this after a nasty incident on a roundabout, in which a van struck the mother’s bakfiets, with her baby in it. David’s main focus is on the number of accidents that have occured on this particular road, and how this compares – poorly – with the most dangerous junction in the Netherlands.

My attention was grabbed, however, by the comment from the Cambridge Cycle Campaign that concludes the newspaper article David refers to –

A spokesman for Cambridge Cycling Campaign said: “Cycling is a very safe activity, and safer in Cambridge than most places in the UK.”

Whether that is all they had to say on the matter, or whether space prevented them from saying more, nothing else appears.*

It’s a statement that is rather similar to comments the CTC’s Chris Peck made in response to the ghost bikes erected in London following the recent spate of deaths there –

Despite their eerie poignancy, some cycling campaigners worry that the memorials could, in fact, act in the main to put off would-be cyclists. “While ghost bikes may help ensure road users pay more attention to one another, they make [sic] give the impression that cycling is more dangerous than it actually is,” said Chris Peck, policy co-ordinator for the CTC, the UK’s main national cycling organisation. “Cyclists in general live two years longer than non-cyclists and are in general healthier – even in heavy traffic, a three-mile ride to work is healthier than driving to work every day and failing to get any exercise.”

The response to examples of danger, both perceived and quite real, is, in both cases, to highlight that cycling is statistically, objectively, ‘a very safe activity’; far safer than these isolated incidents might suggest.

Why does this seem to be the soundbite of choice for some cycle campaigning groups? No doubt they do acknowledge, privately or otherwise, that Cherry Hinton Road in Cambridge could be safer to cycle on. Likewise, they could admit that the gyratory around King’s Cross, where the ghost bike for Deep Lee has been erected, is a far from pleasant, or safe, environment for cycling. They could – when asked for their opinion by a local newspaper, or by the Guardian – state that these roads are actually far less safe than they should be, both in objective and subjective terms, and that something really should be done about them.

But, quite often, they don’t. In these two instances, they prefer to accentuate the positive – to highlight that using a bicycle is actually far safer than it appears to be, or indeed to point out that it has health benefits that will increase your life expectancy.

I think this is because cycle campaigners are terrified of ‘putting people off’ – the logic being that if we start talking about the horrible roads we often have to cycle on, and the dangerous junctions that desperately need improvement, then all we will be doing is fostering the perception – already widespread in the populace – that cycling is a high risk activity, and so in consequence we would be deterring many people from choosing to take up a bicycle as a mode of transport. Agreeing with Jane Richards – the Cambridge mother who feels like giving up cycling – that using a bike in Cambridge does indeed ‘feel like an extreme sport’ would have the net consequence of discouraging people from using bicycles, and worse, might even encourage some current cyclists to discard them.

Cycling is safer the more people who do it – so the mantra goes – and thus we need to do everything we can to hold on to the people who currently cycle, and encourage others to do so. That means we might have to refrain from speaking our minds about the danger some roads pose.

I can sympathise with this point of view. Indeed, I engaged in this kind of sunny optimism myself, as a younger man, attempting to convince my non-cycling friends that cycling around London’s busy gyratories was fine, once you got used to it. I was being honest – at the time, I genuinely felt that it was okay to cycle there, and that once my friends tried it a few times – despite probably being a little unnerving at first – they would grasp the cycling bug, and we would form a happy peloton.

They didn’t bite, though. The tube, and buses, remained a far more attractive alternative for them.

And I think this is, in microcosm, the problem. Whatever I said about cycling on London’s roads to my friends, however long I survived without incident, or injury, it just didn’t smell right for them. It didn’t seem normal. Cycling around giant roundabouts, with motor vehicles, large and small, moving all around you, just isn’t the sort of thing most people are going to engage in, however persuasive their friends are.

You do indeed ‘have to keep your wits about you’, in the famous words of our Mayor. And he was quite correct to say so. It would be beyond foolish to cycle around London without paying attention. The trouble is – and this is the crux of the matter – no other mode of transport in London requires wits to be kept, continually, about oneself. Catching a bus does not require ‘keeping your wits about you’. Nor does using the tube, or walking along the pavement. These are modes of transport that children can use without much formal instruction, beyond ‘don’t step off the kerb’. The same cannot be said, at all, for using a bicycle – not if you don’t want to come to grief.

And this is precisely why cycling, no matter how statistically or objectively safe, feels subjectively unsafe.

If you keep your wits about you, you will most likely be fine, but not everyone wants to keep their wits about them, at all times. I often remark that while cycling in London I feel like a harried fox. Although I am safe, the amount of attention I have to pay to my immediate environment is extraordinary; what a vehicle behind me is planning to do, and what measures I should take to encourage the best possible behaviour from that driver; what speed a vehicle is approaching from a side road; at what point I should start to move out around stationary vehicles; what position I should hold in a particular lane of a gyratory; how and when to filter; the list is, seemingly, endless.

This is not a recipe for subjective safety.

And this is why the responses from the cycling campaigners that provoked this piece are – at least in my opinion – misguided. It is the perception of danger that is the issue. You can tell people that cycling is statistically very safe until the cows come home, but it is how it actually feels that is surely the most important factor in whether people will take up cycling, or continue to do so. Very few people are going to be persuaded by the statistics that the likes of Chris Peck and the Cambridge Cycle Campaign are coming out with; it’s very hard indeed to imagine bicycles being wheeled out of sheds with the realisation that cycling is objectively very safe.

Indeed, if the intention of these kinds of comments is to attempt to shape public perception, then I’m afraid that as a strategy, it is very much a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. It’s too late. Cycling feels, and looks, like an unsafe activity to the vast majority of the population, and I don’t blame them for forming that impression.

We certainly shouldn’t exaggerate the dangers involved in riding a bike, but I think it’s time we saw an acknowledgement, in these soundbites, of the hostility of the environment we have to face when cycling, rather than attempts to persuade us otherwise with statistics. Who knows – it might be rather more useful in the long run.


*UPDATE – As you can see in the comments below,  Cambridge Cycle Campaign did send a rather longer response to the Cambridge Evening News, which runs as follows –

Being shielded from the elements through a ton of metal, drivers have large front, limited surround view and their senses are drastically reduced as they can’t properly hear what is going on around them. Ever thicker pillars have reduced drivers viewing field. Cut off from much of the exterior and helped by powerful engines drivers speed through congested urban roads at speeds that can kill, many not aware that pretty much all danger to life on our roads derive from motor cars and lorries.

Cycling is a very safe activity, and safer in Cambridge than most places in the UK. Gardening is dangerous, yet people take the risk of gardening all the time without thinking about it. If a car collides with another car, wouldn’t the police prosecute that driver for driving without due-care and attention, yet when a car hits a bicycle they don’t. We need road junctions that make pedestrians and cyclists feel safe and are designed to be safe for everybody, not just those in big heavy vehicles.

This is an excellent response – it’s a pity that the Cambridge Evening News didn’t see fit to include the last sentence, in particular, along with the brief sentence they did quote.

This entry was posted in CTC, Cycling policy, Cycling renaissance, Infrastructure, Road safety, Safety In Numbers. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to ‘A very safe activity’

  1. Carlton Reid says:

    Driving: you have to keep your wits about you or you risk being pulverised by an HGV.

    Motorcycling: you have to keep your wits about you (for same reasons as cycling).

    Stepping off a bus: you have to keep your wits about you and not just cross a road without looking around.

    Walking: you have to keep your wits about you, there may be cyclists on the footway.

    On a tube: you have to keep your wits about you or you may fall on to the track, or get stuck on a door.

    Cities are dangerous places for every mode of transport. You have to keep your wits about you. Or you should.

    Even on a separated cycle tracks you would have to keep your wits about you or you risk smashing into cyclists coming in the opposite direction or hitting a kerb.

    Statistically, young men are at a very high risk of dying while driving but this doesn’t stop them driving. Like you, I want safer cycling. But laying into CTC and Cambridge Cycling Campaign is going to achieve what exactly? Let’s focus on transport planners and speeding motorists and politicians.

  2. The issue here stems from the fact that the organisations to which you refer have a dual role: they are asked to comment on cycling safety in the public arena and in the private. I’m sure both repeatedly castigate local authorities for their failures to provide better facilities in private, but in public their primary is to overcome people’s fear of cycling. All the mainstream media want to do is perpetuate the idea that ‘cycling is very dangerous’.

    Even in the small campaigning group I belong to our public facing activities are about trying to persuade non-cyclists to view cycling differently: we run rides, Dr Bike sessions and hold events to try and get people to try cycling again. When we talk to councillors or officers, respond to consultations or planning applications we take a very different attitude: cycling conditions are objectively poor and need improving and we want to see our schemes (mostly cycle paths or speed reduction) implemented.

    Being able to conduct this dual role effectively is difficult – one angle contradicts the other. However, in the short term, trying to persuade people to take up cycling is far more likely to succeed than attempts to make changes to infrastructure.

    • Excellent comment. Thanks.

      To respond, I suppose the general thrust of my piece was that the noises campaigning groups make when in their ‘public’ role might lean a little too much towards emphasising that the danger is, objectively, lower than many other ‘day to day’ activities, while not tending to acknowledge the fact that cycling can often be an unnerving experience. This is a fine line to tread, obviously, but I think there are problems with a failure to talk about the lack of safety new cyclists might perceive. As I said in my reply to Carlton below, these ‘newbies’ might think that this is as good as cycling is going to get, and ultimately be discouraged.

      I think the full response Cambridge Cycle Campaign submitted goes some way towards striking the right balance – it does acknowledge that our roads are dangerous, and demands that they need improvement. It’s a pity that aspect of their response wasn’t included in the newspaper article.

  3. But Carlton, when I drive, and I’m rolling along in traffic, I can join other drivers in fiddling with my stereo, checking my blackberry, picking my nose, or making eyes at the girl opposite.
    When I’m on my bike and I’m moving, I have to look for EVERY SINGLE THING. Are they going to pull out? Not? Open that door? Not? Notice me on the roundabout? As the post says:
    “Although I am safe, the amount of attention I have to pay to my immediate environment is extraordinary … ”
    There is simply no way I pay this level of attention in a car, and nor does anyone else, as far as I can see. And that’s because if they make a mistake, they subjectively know they’re likely to be fine. I have to cycle and not only watch out for my own mistakes but everyone else’s.

  4. Robin Heydon says:

    To enable full disclosure, the full email reply to the Cambridge News from the Cambridge Cycling Campaign said:

    “Being shielded from the elements through a ton of metal, drivers have large front, limited surround view and their senses are drastically reduced as they can’t properly hear what is going on around them. Ever thicker pillars have reduced drivers viewing field. Cut off from much of the exterior and helped by powerful engines drivers speed through congested urban roads at speeds that can kill, many not aware that pretty much all danger to life on our roads derive from motor cars and lorries.

    Cycling is a very safe activity, and safer in Cambridge than most places in the UK. Gardening is dangerous, yet people take the risk of gardening all the time without thinking about it. If a car collides with another car, wouldn’t the police prosecute that driver for driving without due-care and attention, yet when a car hits a bicycle they don’t. We need road junctions that make pedestrians and cyclists feel safe and are designed to be safe for everybody, not just those in big heavy vehicles.”

  5. @Carlton – I think “laying into” is laying it on a bit thick. But to deal with each of your six scenarios:

    Driving: Surrounded by a ton of exoskeleton, airbags, seatbelts, and accompanied by the dulcet tones of Charlotte Green, you only need fear direct impacts – head on crashes or those at 90º. And they only ever happen to other people. So you can safely use the phone, type text messages, fiddle with the stereo, etc.

    Motorbikes: Your point about having to keep your wits about you on a motorbike is correct – in A&E motorcyclists are sometimes referred to as “organ donors”. (You have to admire the gallows humour it takes to work in these places). They’re like cyclists, but with the added hazard of high speed collisions with the scenery being more popular.

    Stepping off a bus: Yes, for those three seconds of your journey you need to have your wits about you. After that, feel free to go back to sleep.

    Walking: If you do meet a cyclist, point out that they’re breaching the 1835 Highways Act, as amended by the 1888 Local Government Act ;-). Other than that, feel free to go about your business, wearing your iPod and texting your mates.

    On the Tube: MIND THE GAP. And for goodness sake don’t pay any attention to what’s going on around you: Under no circumstances whatsoever should you make eye contact with fellow passengers.

    Cities: Largely safe. Don’t go down any dark alleyways, and make sure you keep your wallet in an inside pocket. Never argue about the bill in a pub in Deptford.

    Separated tracks: Keep left and don’t crash into the scenery (at low speeds). But don’t worry about the driver of that HGV who’s just decided he’s turning left; don’t fret about the bus driver who seems to be texting; don’t let that driver’s all-night whisky bender concern you – you don’t need to keep your wits about you for these hazards because you’re physically separated from them.

    Yes, lots and lots of people do die while driving (drivers & their passengers account for about 3/4 of road deaths). But driving doesn’t engender the same feeling of personal danger that cycling does for the majority of the population. In general, the worst case scenario our minds can conjure up while driving is a fender bender & an insurance claim. On a bike those cars, lorries, buses, taxis, tipper trucks and motorcycle messengers seem very very close.

    While I’m absolutely certain that behind closed doors, the CTC & the Cambridge Cycling Campaign do point out the dangers in so many of our roads, I feel their public mantra of repeating the entirely accurate statistics is counterproductive. These hard numbers are at odds with how the majority of the population feel, and repeating them without caveat serves only to undermine their message.

  6. Angus F. Hewlett (@angus_fx) says:

    It’s not just cyclists that are affected by this, though we’re more highly exposed than most. As pedestrians, we have it so drummed in from such a young age that most are basically oblivious to the fast traffic slicing high streets in half, and accept it as normal that getting across the street without seriously endangering yourself is only possible every few hundred yards.

    Carlton, while you’re right about driving to some extent (at least on the motorway), on the bus and the train you can essentially switch off or do something else for most of the journey (which, for me, makes it preferable to the car for long trips – would much rather spend 4 hours playing with the kids / reading a book / working on the laptop than 3 hours doing nothing but concentrate on the road). On foot, on the pavement, the consequences of a moment’s inattention (other than when crossing roads) will generally not be serious. Same, for that matter, on a quiet cycle path unless you’re riding at race speed. Whilst all drivers in towns/cities *should* be maintaining the level of attention that urban cyclists have to as a matter of survival (they, not us, are the ones in charge of the 2-ton heavy machine tool) it’s plainly obvious that many/most don’t.

    Aside from motorways, I can’t think of any other situation where using a mode of transport the way it is intended requires such a high degree of presence-of-mind just to stay alive. However, at least in London, I’m not sure we’ll ever make much headway in tackling the root cause (needless levels of traffic going needlessly fast) while it’s seen as primarily a cycling issue. Though, without meaning to sound too tinfoil-hat about the whole thing, unless you ride a bike it’s hard to question the conditioning you’re subject to as a pedestrian.

  7. Carton – are you really so bent on proving that cycling is safe no matter what? Cycling in safe – mixing with traffic isn’t. Why? Let’s think what safe is – a safe environment is an environment where an error doesn’t result in death or serious injury for the person commiting an error. Period. So driving an HGV is pretty much safe, unless you drive it among much bigger vehicles. Cycling in heavy, fast movin traffic will never be inherently safe as an error will likely result in you being dead. Moreover – it doesn’t have to be an error of the person cycling – it could be an error made by a driver. It’s time to call the emperor naked and agree that not everyone is comfortable cycling in an unsafe (ans sometimes outright dangerous) environment instead of playing make believe.

  8. Don says:

    Robin Heywood’s update is informative and does shed some light on how the paper have used the CCC’s comments selectively. However, I can’t help wondering if it would have been better to leave out the sentences about the relative safety of cycling compared to gardening. The rest of the reply has much more impact and certainly reflects my personal feelings (as an ordinary, everyday commuter).

  9. Richard Mann says:

    At the end of a news story, the journalist wants to end with a good quote, and in their well-meaning way, often wants to “balance” the central thrust of the story.

    They can balance it by saying “it ain’t that bad really”, or they can balance it with “XYZ needs to be done to fix it”. Obviously they can’t quote something that hasn’t been said, so pick the message you want to convey and repeat it three times, to give the journalist a choice of words to use. If you give them three different messages, they’ll just use the simplest one.

    A tiny little news story isn’t going to persuade anyone to cycle. People cycle if the infrastructure is OK, and don’t if it isn’t. The problems are real and they need to be fixed.

  10. disgruntled says:

    I imagine we’re all cyclists reading this. Ask yourself: how many of your non-cycling friends and family have commented to you how dangerous it is riding your bike? (I’d say roughly half of mine). And how many of those have done so because they read on a blog or newsfeed about bike accidents? How many of your non-cycling friends have even heard of the Tour du Danger or similar protests against dangerous roads? (in my case none and none). No, they think cycling is dangerous because it looks dangerous or because they know someone who’s been knocked off their bike, or because they’ve tried to get on their bike and been terrified by some idiot driving too close to them. No matter how much we try and cover up every bike accident with a blanket of roses and fluffy bunnies and statistics, people aren’t stupid and they won’t be convinced until the roads themselves changed. I had a tweet from a woman the other day who’d given up cycling in Edinburgh because she just found it too scary. This was a woman who used to clear landmines for a living. I think that says it all.

  11. Concerning the Kings Cross junction where Deep Lee lost her life, Camden Cycling Campaign has repeatedly pointed out the defects of the junction (and of TfLs proposed ‘improvements’) both in public and in private, e.g.: http://www.camdennewjournal.com/letters/2011/nov/press-tfl-act-safety
    The London Cycling Campaign has adopted ‘Go Dutch: clear space for cyclists on main roads’ as its primary campaign for the 2012 mayoral election.
    They are certainly not sweeping the problem of bad infrastructure under the carpet.

  12. Tommi says:

    Maybe using the word “safe” hits too many nerves and is easily misinterpreted and dismissed. Even if I’ve convinced myself cycling is “safe enough” the constant demand for heightened attention is still very stress inducing. For any trip there’s increased stress for pretty much the whole time when on bike, might relax a bit while waiting for traffic signals. On foot or by public transport it is the opposite, you can relax the whole time with few exceptions in junctions, stairs, and hopping on and off.

    Segregation in space would very much reduce stress most of the way (bone crunching capabilities of a 12-year old on a bike just aren’t even remotely as intimidating as bus or HGV or speeding car) making it more on par with walking, and with segregation in time even junctions would be less stressful.

  13. Carlton Reid says:

    The #crash24 thing on BBC London will maybe show that all modes of road travel can be unsafe.

    Driving is not as safe as its usually perceived, it’s the riskiest thing most people will do all day.

    Clearly, the blame here should be put on motorised vehicles. Mind you, statistically speaking it was ruddy dangerous on the roads even before motorisation: horses and horse-drawn carriages would often kill pedestrians and cyclists.

    Nevertheless, motorised vehicles are dangerous things – for all concerned – and, as a society, we ought to be designing out such danger. There seems little appetite for this in the UK, and this is not the fault of CTC or Cambridge Cycling Campaign.

    Getting more people on bikes is a Good Thing and the organisations have to walk (cycle?) a fine line between campaigning for safer conditions for cyclists and encouraging newcomers to cycling.

    • Carlton, I quite agree about the ‘fine line’ between campaigning for safer conditions, and simultaneously not discouraging people from cycling by over-emphasising danger in so doing. My point is that, perhaps, we are sometimes a little too inclined to the latter than the former.

      There is the possibility that if we continually tell people that cycling is not dangerous, and emphasise the statistical safety of cycling, then those people who are hopping on bikes for the first time, and have an unpleasant experience, might think that is as good as it’s going to get, and ultimately be discouraged. This cuts both ways.

  14. Actual, real-world, statistical safety has nothing to do with it!!!

    Bungy-jumping, rock climbing, and parachuting are probably safer activities than cycling or gardening or even driving. We can say that they’re safer with a large degree of statistical confidence. But that doesn’t stop people believing that they are risking their lives if they take part in these activities.

    Even I, a long-term cycling addict who has ridden tens of thousands of miles in all sorts of different conditions, don’t find cycling on UK roads to be particularly relaxed or pleasant. It feels very dangerous.

    If you try to tell people that “cycling isn’t dangerous” they just think you’re a nutter. End of. If you agree with them that cycling feels very dangerous, but that with some campaigning for facilities that keep the motor vehicles away it could feel an awful lot safer, they might well join your campaign group. Then you campaign for decent facilities, that actually feel safe for ordinary people, and everyone is happy.

  15. It’s complicated. Human subjective perception of an experience is a multi-dimensional thing that is not easily reduced to a number or even a single subjective estimate.

    It is not case that cycling on the segregated cycle network in the Netherlands is a completely carefree and skill-free activity: on the contrary, it requires quite a high degree of skill and awareness, and you do have to “keep your wits about you” where you are interacting with large numbers of cyclists, some of whom are doing quite strange things, with always the possibility of pedestrian interactions, and, of course, at junctions and in the unsegregated parts of the network you still have to be very aware of what motor vehicles are doing.

    Nevertheless, the overall “feel” of the activity is unrecognisably different to cycling in a British city, and that is why so many more people do it. The consequences of making mistakes feel far less risky. The stakes are far lower.

    Probably we get into difficulty with the words “danger” and “safety”, because they can have different interpretations. I have never campaigned for high-quality segregated cycle facilities because I or anybody could prove they were really “safer” than the roads. I have campaigned for them because I find them nicer to cycle on, as do most other people.


    Vole O’Speed

  16. Kim says:

    You say that “no other mode of transport in London requires wits to be kept, continually, about oneself”, have you not looked at the rate of pedestrian fatality in London? It is the form of transport which has the highest fatality rate in London, and for the same reasons as cycling. The best way to tackle this issue would be to abandon the emphasis on (motor) traffic flow and look at a harm reduction approach, sadly this is at odds with the “libertarian” beliefs of the current administration. As it would require adults to really take responsibility for their actions, something most of our politician are far from whiling to do, certainly not the pathetic joke the is the current mayor.

    • Quite agree about the horrendous rate of pedestrian fatalities. However I would counter that walking about in London is not, generally, a stressful activity; it’s often painfully inconvenient, but you can limit your interactions with motor traffic quite successfully. There is, of course, the terrible problem of cars mounting pavements and crushing people, but this is not a persistent threat to your safety in a way analogous to cycling.

  17. David Earl says:

    Cambridge Cycling Campaign’s response was the way it was because the original article started “A family says cycling in Cambridge is more dangerous than taking part in extreme sports” and went on in the same vein. Regrettable and traumatic though this collision is, that thrust of the article just isn’t true. And as you see, the News used only a few words out of that statement.

  18. Joe Dunckley says:

    “You can tell people that cycling is statistically very safe”

    I think there’s another issue here aside from the already thoroughly discussed fact that subjective safety is the big barrier to people cycling — an issue that it is particularly important for Boris “Elephant and Castle is perfectly safe” Johnson to grasp.

    Bungee Jumping is statistically safe for the sort of healthy young people who go bungee jumping. Bungee jumping is “prohibited to pregnant women and those suffering from high blood pressure, heart conditions, neurological disorders, epilepsy, acute or chronic knee or back injuries and knee and ankle dislocations, and should not be tried while drunk or stoned.”

    Cycling is statistically safe for the people who are currently choosing to cycle. We can’t say anything more than that, because there are obviously no statistics on the risk of coming to harm while cycling for those people who currently never cycle. When it comes to “encouraging” people who don’t currently make trips by bicycle to do so, you can not truthfully say that we know they would be at low risk of coming to harm.

    The people who are currently choosing to cycle are disproportionately healthy young to middle-aged adults, disproportionately doing so for urban commuting, and disproportionately males. They are the sort of people who can comfortably look over their shoulder ten times a minute, and keep up with the speed of traffic at intersections. People like Boris Johnson. It does seem to be true that they — we — are at low risk of coming to harm.

  19. Pingback: What won’t bring about mass cycling … ignoring the elephant on the table. | peoplesfrontofrichmond

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