Am I dicing with death every morning and evening? The Times would say so. I cycle to work, and, for the past two days, the Times has given over its front page to a campaign on cycling safety. The campaign is in most respects commendable — I like the specific proposals — but it emphasises the urgency of the issue by giving a very grim impression of the risks that cyclists face. ‘Britain’s riders are paying with their lives when they take to the roads,’ we are told. In fact, a bicycle is far from being the most dangerous way to get around.
On the measure the Times uses — death rate by distance travelled — pedestrians are more likely to pay with their lives than cyclists are. In 2008, there were 31 deaths for every billion kilometres walked, as against 24 per billion km cycled. You’re much safer in a car, it’s true — two deaths per billion km — but very much less safe on a motorbike: 89 deaths per billion km.
Such distance-based figures, however, can be misleading when the people under consideration don’t travel very far. The Times estimates that an average ‘regular’ cyclist does 16 miles a week, and then gives death rates per billion miles: that is, per 1.2 million years of averagely regular cycling.
For a better-proportioned sense of the risks of walking and cycling, it might make sense to look by number of trips, or by time on the road. Fortunately, someone has done this. Someone at the Times, in fact, which a few years ago sent the Department for Transport an FoI request on the subject. The results were given as a ten-year average of the decade from 1996 to 2005: all modes of transport have become a little safer since, but the relative positions are still fairly similar.
On a per-trip basis, cycling does look quite a bit riskier than walking: there are 3.7 deaths per 100 million journeys walked, against 13 per 100 million cycling journeys. But the gap with car-driving closes: I am only four times more likely to die than the drivers who overtake me, as against a dozen times on the distance figures. And motorcycling looks vastly more dangerous: 153 deaths per 100 million journeys. The pattern is similar if you look per 100 million hours of travel: 15 deaths on foot, ten in a car, 40 by bicycle, 402 by motorbike.
The risks of getting about on a bike could and should be reduced. But hyping them will only further increase the bizarre levels of resentment that exist between cyclists and non-cyclists, and encourage people who would enjoy and benefit from cycling to leave their bikes in the garage.