Are women cyclists in more danger than men?
By Sarah Bell
Women cyclists make up a far higher proportion of deaths involving lorries than men. Why?
Many of the fatalities involving cyclists happen in collisions with a heavy goods vehicle (HGV). This year, seven of the eight people killed by lorries in London have been women.
Considering that women make only 28% of the UK’s cycling journeys, this seems extremely high.
There are no national figures but there’s little reason to think it is any different. In August, a 27-year-old woman died in Leeds after her bike was in collision with a lorry.
These deaths could be attributed to a tragic anomaly, but some cycling campaigners are concerned whether there is something about how women cycle which puts them at greater risk from lorries.
"It’s something we’re trying to understand. When you look at HGV accidents there are a lot more women involved than you would expect. We don’t know why that is," says Charlie Lloyd, from the London Cycling Campaign.
With this in mind, his group has organised a special women-only bike ride to the Cycle Show in London’s Earls Court this weekend, a trip that ends with the chance for participants to sit in a lorry and experience the view drivers have of the road.
The high incidence of women killed by lorries has come to the attention of the authorities before.
In 2007, an internal report for Transport for London concluded women cyclists are far more likely to be killed by lorries because, unlike men, they tend to obey red lights and wait at junctions in the driver’s blind spot.
This means that if the lorry turns left, the driver cannot see the cyclist as the vehicle cuts across the bike’s path.
The report said that male cyclists are generally quicker getting away from a red light - or, indeed, jump red lights - and so get out of the danger area.
But could it be a matter of confidence? Some women don’t feel safe on their bikes and nervous cyclists could put themselves in danger, says Wendy Johnston of sustainable transport charity Sustrans.
Safety is the prime factor stopping women from getting on their bikes, she says, so her organisation is leading a campaign called "Bike Belles" to promote women’s cycling, including a petition calling for the government to promote safety.
Feeling nervous about cycling can influence the way people ride, she says. Some women tend to cycle too close to the pavement as they want to stay as far away from traffic as possible.
"This can be a problem as vehicles may not regard you as part of the traffic flow and don’t give the right amount of space. It means they may be tempted to come closer to you," says Mrs Johnston.
"It can have an impact on how other vehicles treat you. It can also impact on confidence as if they come too close, as it makes you feel you can’t come out in the road."
While many cyclists are calling for more cycle lanes to make their journeys safer, others dislike them because they believe they encourage people to ride down the left-hand-side of large vehicles and towards the kerb.
Marian Louise Noonan, 32, from south London, is a confessed kerb-hugger, and that leaves her feeling quite vulnerable on the roads, unlike her husband.
"He cycles much more aggressively and is aware of all the traffic around him. He cycles as if someone is going to hit him and makes sure he is in a safe position," she says.
"I’m much more nervous of my cycling ability, I’m frightened people might hit me, which means I don’t cycle in a positive manner."
The main problem is the attitude of other drivers, she says, as they make her feel like she does not belong on the road.
She also feels reluctant to put herself at the front of the traffic at red lights, which is the safest place for cyclists to be.
"Things like being able to sit in the boxes at the front of traffic lights are safer for someone like me, because it takes a bit more effort to move off and get to the correct speed, but sometimes that annoys other drivers as it looks like you’re pushing in."
Ms Noonan’s reluctance to assert herself is typical, says Dr Dave Horton from Lancaster University, a sociologist who has written a study on the fear of cycling.
"Being highly visible in public spaces is something women are going to be less comfortable with than men, especially in the road environment in marked areas where people can see you and male drivers can see you.
"There’s a discomfort around putting yourself on display. It’s the idea that in a car it’s much harder to see you."
Turning right is also a problem for some women cyclists because they lack the confidence to look over their shoulder and judge when to cross the traffic, says Ian Walker, a professor of traffic and transport psychology at the University of Bath. He drew this conclusion after studying 5,000 cyclists in Oxford and Cambridge.
But he challenges the notion that nervous cyclists are generally more vulnerable because if fear is visible it can help, he says. The more confident you look, the closer the cars get, he says, and a deliberate wobble is sometimes used by cyclists to get more space.
In one experiment, he cycled with a device which measured how much room cars gave as they passed, then repeated it while wearing a long female wig. Drivers gave the "woman" more room.
Setting lorries aside, the bigger picture is that far more men are killed on their bikes. In 2008, 84% of the 115 fatalities were men and 81% of reported injuries were to men.
And overall, the number of cyclists killed in Britain has fallen by 27% compared with the mid-1990s. Last year, 115 cyclists were killed on the roads, a 15% fall from 136 deaths in 2007.
Two of the women recently killed were experienced, so it’s not just about nerves, says Chief Inspector Graham Horwood of the Met Police Traffic Unit.
"It’s often that they are in the wrong place at the wrong time and circumstances get to a certain point where they end up in these positions.
"You can’t always blame the cyclists and you can’t always blame the lorry drivers, it’s a mix of who’s responsible."
Confident female cyclists like Jane Hornsby, 49, from Oxford, says it’s not just safety that puts some women off getting on two wheels.
Practical issues like changing facilities and bringing a spare outfit also play a part.
Women may also have less time than men, she says, because they tend to have the responsibility of looking after children before and after work, and are often carrying shopping.