I have just read a wonderful pro cycling article in the British Medical Journal. (BMJ) It came out last December so you may have already seen it. If not, there is a link at the end.
What makes this piece different is that it is not written by a cycling advocacy group, but is an article for doctors by an independent writer pointing out the health benefits of cycling, and how these benefits far outweigh the slight risk of riding on the road.
This is a view that I strongly agree with. If cycling is ever to become popular again in the western world, the myth that cycling is dangerous must be dispelled.
The BMJ article comes out against helmet use on the grounds that it gives the impression that cycling is more dangerous than it really is. I am inclined to agree to a certain degree. I wear a helmet, but it is my choice; I am opposed to helmet use being mandatory, especially if it stops people from cycling.
The article points out, when helmets were made compulsory in Australia, hospital admissions from head injury fell by 15-20%, but the level of cycling fell by 35%. Ten years later, cycling levels in Western Australia are still 5-20% below the level they were before the introduction of the law yet head injuries are only 11% lower than would be expected without helmets.
At the same time, 17 times more motorists than cyclists died of head injuries in Australia during 1988, and yet no one is advocating mandatory helmets for motor vehicle drivers.
The BMJ article refers to the inherent risks of road cycling as trivial. Of at least 3.5 million regular cyclists in Britain, only about 10 a year die in rider only accidents where there is no other vehicle involved. Compare this with about 350 people killed each year by head injuries after falling down steps or tripping. (Total cycling fatalities in the UK in 2005 were 148.)
Another study estimated that out of 150,000 people admitted to hospital annually with head injuries in the United Kingdom; road cyclists account for only 1% of this total, yet 6% of the population are regular cyclists and a further 5% are occasional cyclists; 60% of admissions were alcohol related. Maybe we need helmets for walking drunks.
Finally, the BMJ article touched on a point that is the crux of the whole road death issue. In 1983, compulsion to wear seatbelts cut deaths among drivers and front seat passengers by 25%. Up until 1983, there had been a long established trend of declining deaths in car accidents. This reversed and just six years later by 1989 death rates among car drivers were higher than they had been in 1983.
Evidently, the driving population "risk compensated" away the substantial benefits of seatbelts by taking extra risks, at the same time putting others in more danger. This period saw a jump in deaths of cyclists.
Although temporary, the jump was followed by a decline and can be explained by cyclists having adapted to a more dangerous road environment through extra caution, or simply giving up cycling.
It is no coincidence that the long decline in cycling in the UK began in 1983. Between 1974 and 1982 cycling mileage in Britain increased 70%, but there was no increase in fatalities until the seatbelt law was introduced in 1983.
The civilized world should be outraged at the appalling casualty rate on our roads. It is the drivers of automobiles who are doing all the killing. In particular, aggressive drivers are the problem, speeding, running red lights, and taking all kinds of other risks.
In many cases, an aggressive driver is an angry driver, and I have heard it said that an angry driver is as much danger as a drunk driver. However, aggressive driving does not carry the social stigma that drunk driving does. It is time that it did; a dead person is just as dead whether killed by an aggressive driver or a drunk one.
Aggressive driving is unnecessary; it is just a habit, the sad this is, it has become accepted as the norm. Driving aggressively may only take five minutes off an average thirty-mile trip. Aside from the danger, there’s the mental stress, the wear and tear on the vehicle, and the gas wasted. Is it really worth it?
In spite of this, it has been proven that experienced cyclists are still safe because they become street smart, and ride defensively. Just as good, defensive drivers stay out of trouble. Inexperienced riders need to seek advice on safe riding practices, and get out there and ride. Like all skills there is no substitute for actually doing it.
It is a myth that cycling is dangerous, and car driving is safe. That seat belts save lives, because indirectly seat belts have lead to more deaths due to unsafe driving practices. However, we cannot go back. Making seat belts optional would claim more innocent lives, and would not stop aggressive driving.
I will go out on a limb here and state that it is also a myth that helmets save cyclists lives, because it is mostly the experienced bike riders who wear the helmets. It is experience that protects a cyclist’s life; but like the seat belt situation, we cannot go back. I for one will continue to wear my helmet.
Read the BMJ article here