Tuesday 7 January 2014

The downsides of emphasizing the dangers of cycling

Summary: Avid cyclists (typically men) often make out cycling to be a dangerous sport or lifestyle choice, while many cycling advocates emphasise the need to make cycling much safer before it can be adopted by everyone. Yet the actual safety is high (relative to the alternatives) in the majority of countries (even car-centric ones). While we should always aim to improve safety further, maintaining the myth that cycling is typically dangerous has some unwitting, adverse effects.

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Steven Vance

Cycling is actually pretty safe, even in most car-centric countries, yet most people (including many cyclists and cycling advocates) believe it is dangerous or emphasize its danger. See: > Perceptions of bicycle safety. This can have some adverse consequences that should be thoughtfully considered.

1. If perceived safety increased to match actual safety, cycling rates would also increase significantly
- Cycling advocates are absolutely correct that perceived safety (how subjectively safe a person feels cycling is) not actual safety (which most people do not have the facts about) determines cycling rates. Their solutions to increasing perceived safety are to build adequate segregated cycling tracks and other safe cycling infrastructure and change laws/regulations to slow down and reduce the number of cars.

- The problem is that these solutions can be difficult and time-consuming to bring about. They are also dependent on sufficient popular support and existing adoption, but, in most cities, there isn't a critical mass of urban cyclists yet as most are too scared to ride.

- A viable way to achieve that critical mass is to change the incorrect perception that cycling is dangerous and have more people understand that it can be very safe and that the overall health and safety benefits are significant. A critical mass of cyclists in areas where urban cycling is most advantageous will make it easier and quicker to get better cycling infrastructure and improved laws or regulations implemented.

2. Negligent motorists who endanger or harm cyclists may not be held as accountable due to the idea that cycling is inherently dangerous and cyclists choose to accept inevitable risks of injury
"Cyclists are sometimes harmed by negligent, or even aggressive, motorists. Too often, police aren't willing to ticket motorists who are at fault, because they feel that in something as risky as cycling, you deserve whatever you get. Too often, cyclists do badly in the courts, because prosecutors, judges and juries think cyclists should expect to get hurt." > Perceptions of bicycle safety
3. Poor cycling infrastructure is sometimes based on the idea that the roads are too dangerous for cyclists
"The assumption that cycling is dangerous also leads to some terrible facility design. Examples are sidewalk bike paths that run cyclists through blind curves, alongside collision hazards, over terrible pavement - anything to keep cyclists away from cars. Why? Because designers believe riding near cars is so dangerous!" > Perceptions of bicycle safety
4. Restrictive, inconsistent and counterproductive laws and rules are often based on the idea cycling is dangerous
- The prime example are mandatory helmet laws which the evidence clearly shows are a barrier to mainstream cycling adoption and the extent of cycling use for many trips.

- However, there are other examples of restrictive and inhibiting laws that either make cycling less appealing, easy, simple and advantageous (fast, efficient).
"There are communities that impose restrictive and inconsistent laws against cyclists. Astoundingly, there are municipalities that require riding on sidewalks, which are much more dangerous than roads, or even require walking bikes across all intersections. This is because the lawmakers know nothing about cycling, but they "know" that cycling is very dangerous." > Perceptions of bicycle safety 
- Laws that encourage cyclists to ride primarily on sidewalks are an example of the effect being totally counterproductive. Accident rate research shows that primarily riding on sidewalks is much more dangerous than riding on the road because of the much greater risk from cars at each driveway and intersection.