If it’s unsafe for cycling, it’s unsafe for driving

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.




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9 Responses to If it’s unsafe for cycling, it’s unsafe for driving

  1. wendyrg says:

    Sorry to hijack this post, but I’d just like to speak in defense of pedestrians who take their life their hands walking along the sidewalk and crossing the street because of cyclists. I hate to say it, but many cyclists (at least here in Toronto) are so holier than thou about riding a bike that they seem to have no respect for either pedestrians or drivers. I have rarely seen a cyclist stop at a red light, never mind a stop sign. As for the number of cyclists speeding along the sidewalk, there are too many to count. As someone who cannot ride a bike due to health problems but who walks as much as possible, I feel endangered by most cyclists I see on the road (and the sidewalks).

    I am also hugely afraid of hitting a cyclist while I’m driving. I try to be as safe a driver as possible and respect those around me, but it’s pretty hard to stay safe and keep others safe too when a cyclist comes whizzing by on my right, just as I am about to make a right turn (having turned on my flasher a least a minute ahead of time while waiting for traffic to clear so I can turn).

    I don’t want to see anyone die, but as it stands right now, I have little respect for most cyclists I see on the road. They are a danger to both others and themselves.

    Please, let’s start a real dialogue between all the users of public thoroughfares and try to make conditions safer for everyone.

    • Travis says:

      I agree with most of those concerns, and cyclists who ignore all the rules upset me as well, because they give a drivers a reason/excuse to dislike cyclists. If you are over the age of about 12, you have no reason to be cycling on a sidewalk. That being said, I think it’s largely a salience issue – you’re unlikely to remember a cyclist who obeys the rules, but it’s impossible to forget the one who nearly runs you over. Unless the driving culture in Toronto is completely at odds with those in other major cities, the truly dangerous cyclists are in the minority (just like car drivers).

      With that said, it is amazing how many drivers ignore many of those same rules (at least with respect to stop signs and red lights). I live next to a stop sign, and have watched as car after car roll through it. And it is also amazing how frequently cars will cut you off or fail to signal, putting your life immediately in danger.

      I think one problem is that too few drivers also ride a bike, and vice versa. I know cyclists who do things like you described (e.g. passing on the right) simply because they don’t drive enough to realise how dangerous that would be. Similarly, once you’ve been riding a bike for a few minutes, it becomes clear that coming to a literal stop at any stop sign is a complete waste of time.

      In the end I don’t know what a real dialogue would look like. This discussion is an example of pretty much every dialogue I”ve seen about cycling. Cyclists point out that cycling is needlessly dangerous, and someone else points out that some cyclists do very dumb things. Both things are absolutely correct. If we had reasonable cycling infrastructure so that we weren’t all fighting for the same space, and driving laws which were consistently applied, these issues would go away. In the absence of those things, we’ll keep going in circles.

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  3. julie says:

    Thank you Travis, as a rare person who does drive, cycle, and walk, I’d have to put car drivers as the most dangerous, lawbreaking, and unpredictable as well. Some bicyclists do some dumb stuff, but are usually only a danger to themselves (unless they’re riding on crowded sidewalks).

    I’m not loving the left turn on red that cars are starting to do lately. Very bad. And while here it’s legal to turn right on red, you’re supposed to check for pedestrians first. Same thing with stop signs, you’re supposed to actually check before proceeding. I’m also not loving pedestrians who decide that they’re too righteous to wait for their green light, even when there is oncoming traffic (SELFISH!), nor pull their eyes away from their phones long enough to check for oncoming traffic, or that they’re not going to bang into other pedestrians.

    But people only remember the bicyclists, unless the car driver almost kills them, otherwise it’s just accepted as normal.

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