I just came across an article by Ottawa Citizen columnist Kelly Egan on the safety of active transportation. He begins by recounting a tragic accident which occurred last week on West Hunt Club Road:
The city has these bicycle lanes on West Hunt Club, where the speed limit is 80 km/h, which means everybody drives 90 to 100, big rigs to bad actors.
I wouldn’t bike along there if you paid me. Too damn dangerous.
If someone as experienced as Mario Théoret, 38, an avid cycling commuter, a competitive mountain biker, can get killed on the way to work — West Hunt Club and Merivale — in broad daylight, what does that say to the rest of us? Rest his soul, poor man.
But, to the point, the city loves to tell us how to get anywhere and, with enthusiasm, encourages us to get out of our cars. Great. Pray we don’t die in the commission of our civic duty.
Although this argument has little to do with the rest of the article (which argues that we need to get more kids walking to school – I agree with this wholeheartedly) his initial argument struck me as being very odd. It’s also one I hear all the time. Cyclists sometimes die, ergo I will not be a cyclist. I find this odd since no one ever applies the same argument to other forms of transportation.
The thing that people forget is that people commuting by car are also at risk of being injured in an accident. In fact, car-only accidents on West Hunt Club are relatively frequent. It’s a major road with 4 lanes of traffic. West Hunt Club also contains the most dangerous intersection in Ottawa. It’s arguably a pretty dangerous road to be on regardless of your form of transportation. And because cars are so dangerous to just about everything (other cars, pedestrians, cyclists, and sometimes buildings), they injure a lot of people. So though you increase your personal safety by driving in a car rather than on a bike, you increase the risk to everyone around you. And while I don’t have any stats to back this up, I’m willing to bet that far more people die from car accidents on highways (such as Highway 401) than die in bike accidents on even the most dangerous roads like West Hunt Club. I know that I’m comparing apples to oranges here, but my point is that people will often talk about “taking your life in your hands” when they find out you bike on city streets, but they are far less likely to say the same thing about driving on a major freeway.
Sitting in a car for prolonged periods also increases your risk of more long-term health consequences like excess weight gain (details here). So it’s a trade-off – you are slightly safer in the short-term but you may be less safe in the long-term. Of relevance to this discussion, a couple years ago I wrote a post on a study which estimated whether the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks (the study itself is available here). And on average, it seems that the benefits from cycling far outweigh the risks.
From that post:
The authors [of this study] report that for most adults, the risk of death when cycling is about 4.3x higher than if the same trip were being made by car (YIKES!). However, we’ve got to remember that commuters not only pose a risk to themselves – they also post a risk to other road users. And if you’re going to be hit by a vehicle, a Cervelo is going to do you a lot less harm than a Corolla! So with an increase in the number of trips made by bike, the increased mortality among cyclists due to traffic accidents is offset by the reduced mortality among the general population who would be less likely to be run over crossing the street (interestingly, if it were high risk young drivers who were to switch from driving to cycling, it would actually save lives!).
Now while the risk of being in an accident is higher for cyclists, it must be remembered that they are also likely to be getting increased levels of health promoting physical activity, and substantially reducing their volume of sedentary time. In fact, the risk of death due to physical inactivity among active commuters is estimated to be 10-50% lower than in non-active commuters – a pretty substantial health benefit!
So will cycling to work make your life longer or shorter? On average, the risk due to car accidents will reduce your life expectancy by just 5-9 days. Being exposed to air pollution during your commute could cost you another 8-40 days. But the physical activity in your commute would actually increase your life expectancy by up to 14 months! Overall, the health benefits of active commuting by bike are 9 times greater than the risks!
Now I know that that is not going to convince most people to get on their bike and head for West Hunt Club this weekend. But in that case I’d urge them to also avoid driving their cars down Hunt Club, which is the one thing that would unequivocally make the roads safer for those who do choose to cycle there.