Thursday 8 November 2012 15.11 EST
Source: The Guardian
Activists insist sport’s benefits outweigh risks after cycling star and his coach hurt in separate accidents
Shane Sutton can’t remember what happened on Thursday morning. All he knows is that he had headed out for his usual spin before going to the velodrome in Manchester, where he is head coach for the GB Cycling Team. He likes to get a few hours in on the bike before work.
But as for what happened when he rode along the Stockport Road, the A6, near to the junction with Clare Road in Levenshulme just after 8.55am? Nothing. All he knows is that when he came to, he was en route to Hope hospital.
Doctors would later tell the 54-year-old Australian he had suffered concussion and a small bleed on the brain. His condition soon stabilised, but he was lucky to be alive. The 61-year-old driver of the Peugeot which hit him was not hurt and has not been arrested.
It was horrible timing. The night before, Sutton had been fielding calls from journalists anxious for updates on another bike accident involving one of his most famous charges.
Bradley Wiggins, the winner of this year’s Tour de France and multiple Olympic gold medal winner, had been knocked off his mountain bike by a Vauxhall Astra van coming out of a petrol station near his home in Eccleston, near Chorley in Lancashire. He was taken to hospital with bruises to his right hand and ribs. The driver, again, was fine: if horrified to be told by police exactly who she’d hurt.
The crashes made national news bulletins. Phone-in shows stopped talking about the US elections and turned their attention to cycle safety. Newsround, the BBC’s children’s programme, asked its viewers whether they felt safe on their bikes. No, said many. “Although it helps you to keep fit, I think riding a bike on roads is dangerous and unsafe because vehicles may not be able to see you,” said Gabrielle, from Durham.
Cycling campaigners listened in horror. After Britain’s triumphs at the Olympics and the Tour, hopes were high that more Britons would get off the sofa and on to the saddle. Could these two high profile accidents undo all that good work?
“With accidents like this there is always the concern that the publicity will put people off cycling and make them think it is more dangerous than it is,” said Chris Peck, policy co-ordinator for the CTC, the national cyclists’ organisation. “We know there is an overinflated fear of cycling, yet studies show that the health benefits outweigh the risks by 20 to 1.”
British Cycling, the national governing body for cycling, which pays Sutton’s wages, was at pains to point out that “cycling is not an intrinsically dangerous activity”. A spokesperson said: “It is extremely rare that our riders and coaches are hurt while out cycling on the road, even rarer that two incidents should occur in a short space of time, and we wish Shane and Bradley a speedy recovery.”
But Peck said he was not surprised that Wiggins was hit on a major rural road. “Cyclists are disproportionately likely to be hit on these roads, he said. “A study showed there are 170 cyclist deaths per billion kilometres cycled on major rural roads, but only eight per billion kilometres on minor urban roads.” The latter rate is the same as in the bicycling nirvanas of the Netherlands or Denmark, he added.
It is unclear yet whether anyone will be charged in connection with the two crashes. But a Department for Transport (DfT) analysis of cyclists’ injuries found that two-thirds of crashes involving adult cyclists were deemed by police to be the fault of drivers, with just one in five blamed solely on the cyclist. “Crashes like this are far too common and the reaction from drivers familiar – ‘Sorry mate, I didn’t see you’,” said Peck. “It’s time for the police to start treating incidents of bad driving seriously and for courts to keep bad drivers off the streets.”
There was a 16% increase in the number of serious injuries to cyclists last year, while cycling levels only rose by 1-2%, suggesting the risk of being injured while cycling rose. According to the DfT, 10% of adults in England now cycle at least once per week. This figure varies significantly by area, from more than 50% to less than 5%. So far this year, 104 cyclists have been killed in Britain; the total for 2011 was 107.
Some believe the deterioration in traffic policing may be in part responsible for worsening accident rates. Figures obtained by CTC show there has been a 22% reduction in traffic police in Lancashire over the past 10 years, with just 155 traffic police covering 4,303 miles of road.
But there is evidence the government has started to take cycle safety more seriously. Earlier this week, the all-party parliamentary group on cycling officially launched an inquiry into how to get Britain cycling. The inquiry will see experts and organisations give evidence across a broad range of issues – highlighting the barriers to cycling and cycling’s benefits – before a written report is published in April 2013.
Yet cycling organisations believe more needs to be done to improve conditions for cyclists on the roads. “British Cycling is calling on the government to put cycling at the heart of transport policy to ensure that cycle safety is built into the design of all new roads, junctions and transport projects, rather than being an afterthought,” said the British Cycling spokesperson.
Wishing Wiggins and Sutton well, the road safety minister Stephen Hammond said: “The government is fully committed to encouraging cycling and improving safety and recently launched the first THINK! cyclist campaign. We have also invested £30m to tackle dangerous junctions for cyclists and are giving more than £1bn to councils to design solutions appropriate to their local transport challenges, including improving their road infrastructure to encourage cycling. The vast majority of projects funded by the £600m Local Sustainable Transport Fund also contain a cycling element.”
Yet not all MPs are so enlightened. When then Tory transport minister Theresa Villiers was knocked off her bike this year, Tom Harris, now shadow environment minister, offered the following bon mot: “I trust that when she returns to her duties after that speedy recovery, she will use her ministerial car rather more often and her push bike rather less often.”