How Dangerous is Cycling?

by Tejvan
on NOVEMBER 8, 2012


Mother Cycling with Young Child on Handlebars

Mother Cycling with Young Child on Handlebars

Cycling is often perceived as a dangerous activity and this is often a big factor that discourages people from cycling. The potential dangers of cycling are highly visible and road users can feel vulnerable when facing fast moving traffic on both urban and rural roads. However, despite some fears about dangers of cycling, it is still a relatively safe activity.

When evaluating the dangers of cycling, the most useful metric is looking at accidents per bn km. By this measure, cycling is more dangerous than travelling by car or train, but it sill shows that fatal accidents are very rare – compared to the amount of cycling undertaken.

In this regard, cycling is no more dangerous that similar activities such as DIY, gardening or even walking through an urban environment. Also, worth bearing in mind are the health benefits of cycling. Cycling can play a key role in reducing deaths related to obesity and heart problems. These killers are less obvious than the dangers of cycling, but they are just as important in determining life expectancy.

BTW: I was inspired to revise this post because I got an invite to speak on Aljazeera TV on the dangers of cycling in the light of Bradley Wiggins’ recent accident near Wigan.

Some Basic Cycling Statistics

  • The number of cyclists killed on British roads in 2011 was  107 – down from 132 in 2007.
  • The total number of people killed in road traffic accidents  during 2011 was 1,901 people  – down from 2,946 in 2007.

Other Fatalities in UK

  • The number of people who died of heart disease in the UK in 2007 was 70,000
  • The number of people who died using a ladder was 50. [1]

Cycling vs Other Modes of Transport

Killed Road Type

Killed Road Type

In the past decade, there has been a rapid improvement in road safety, with a sharp drop in road fatalities. However, the drop in cycling fatalities has been much slower. Serious cycle accidents have actually increased. This partly reflects the fact that cars have gained improved safety features such as crumple zones and air bags, and these technological improvements are obviously not applicable for cyclists.

Casualties per km travelled

Casualties Per BN KM Travelled

Casualties Per BN KM Travelled

The most useful way of measuring the dangers of cycling is to look at accidents per km travelled. In the UK, in 2011 there were 21 fatalities per billion km travelled.  This is down from a fatality rate of 44 per billion km travelled in 1990.

  • In the Netherlands, there were 9 fatalities per billion km cycled in 2009.SWOV rates in Netherlands.
  • In the UK there are  21 fatalities per billion km cycled.

However, the fatality rate for cyclists is nearly 17 times higher than cars. In 2011, the fatality rate for car users was only 1.2 per bn km travelled.

Risk Decreases the More People Cycle.

Cities with a higher density (%) of people cycling tend to have lower mortality rates. For example, in 1994, London had 19 fatal cycling accidents. In 2007, the number of cycle journeys had increased 91%, yet, fatalities fell to 16. This is a small sample, but, it suggests that as more people cycle, motorists adjust their behaviour to compensate for the increase in number of cyclists.

  • In countries like the Netherlands, where cycling takes more than 30% of all journey, fatalities are a much smaller % of total km travelled.
  • The UK sees less than half the cycling fatalities per 100,000 people than in Germany. However, Germans make five times as many journeys by bike as Britons. [BBC]

Cycling vs Other Forms of Transport

Odds of Death vs. Injury in Crashes by Vehicle
Vehicle Deaths Injuries Odds
Bus 17 17,000 1 in 1000
Car, Station Wagon 21,969 2,378,000 1 in 108
Pickup, SUV, Van 10,224 768,000 1 in 75
Bicycle 813 58,000 1 in 71
Large Truck 717 31,000 1 in 43
Motorcycle, Motorbike 2,106 54,000 1 in 26
On Foot 5,307 77,000 1 in 15
Data From NHTSA Traffic Safety Facts 1997

This graph comes from US.

I have seen various different data on the risk of cycling. But, this seems a comprehensive study about the relative dangers of different types of transport. Cycling is more dangerous than driving a car or going by bus. But, it is less dangerous than being a pedestrian. [link]

Cycle Death rates by mode of Transport UK

Death Rates Transport

Death Rates Transport

Fatalities per bn Kilometres travelled. Death rates by mode of transport

Health Benefits of Cycling

Although cycling incurs a certain risk, it is definitely worth mentioning the advantage of cycling in improving fitness. Cycling helps to improve aerobic fitness and reduce obesity. This makes a significant contribution to reduce heart disease and other obesity related diseases. The number of deaths from heart disease in the UK is a staggering 70,000 a year. This easily dwarves the fatalities of cycling (126). Whilst a cycling accident makes a newsworthy story, a heart attack doesn’t. But, it is important to weigh up the benefits as well as the cost. Yet, in deciding whether to cycle or drive, most people tend to focus on the dangers.

see more on: Cycling and health

Summary – So Is Cycling Dangerous?

Like any activity, cycling incurs dangers. However, they are not unreasonable dangers compared to other activities. Overall, cyclists may still expect to live longer than non-cyclists because the benefits from increased physical health outweigh the fatalities resulting from road traffic accident.

Often cycling accidents make headline news, creating a media sensation which highlights the dangers of cycling. For example, a death from DIY activity or heart disease would be unlikely to make local papers, but a cycling accident (especially if involving a top cyclist like Bradley Wiggins would.)

However, despite cycling being relatively safe, it could still be made much more safe. Improvements in road safety in the past decade have proportionately benefited motorists. Cycling could be made a safer activity through extending 20mph speed limits, better road design and improved driver and cyclist awareness.

When evaluating the dangers of cycling it is important to treat statistics and headlines with caution. London cycling fatalities may have increased in recent years, but this has to be set against a rapid increase in cycle use. The Netherlands may have more actual fatalities than the UK, but cycle rates are far higher. The most useful statistic is to set cycle accidents against rate of use. Per bn km is not ideal (e.g. long motorway journeys are statistically much safer than short urban journeys) but it is better than raw data.