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How safe is it to cycle our streets?

The Irish Times: How safe is it to cycle our streets?

Published June 19, 2012

More of us are travelling by bike, but just how risky is it to take two wheels?

TOTS ON trikes, robed barristers on racers, high-heeled hairdressers on High Nellies – Ireland has gone mad for cycling. Once empty cycle lanes are now red conveyor belts of pedallers, and rush hour junctions are a jam of wheels. It’s clear we’re having a love affair with the bike. But now that more road users are sharing the same space, is cycling safe?

We’re not yet half way through the year and six cyclists have already been killed on Irish roads. That’s up from five killed in all of 2010. And these figures don’t reflect the far greater numbers who are injured.

While the most common cause of cyclist fatality is head injury, the most common injuries to cyclists are to the lower body, according to Dr Ciarán Simms from the Trinity Centre for Bioengineering and the School of Engineering.

“In about 60 per cent of cases, cyclists are hit from the side and then leg injuries are likely because the leg gets hit by the front of the car.”

But, as with pedestrians, the design of the impacting vehicle can make a big difference with high-fronted SUVs likely to cause more significant injuries.

Citing research from his 2009 book, Pedestrian and Cyclist Impact – A Biomechanical Perspective, Simms says about 45 per cent of injuries to cyclists are to the lower body with the head accounting for about 28 per cent of injuries.

Whether it’s sustained through impact with a vehicle, hitting a pothole or falling off your bike in your own back yard, an injury to the head is likely to yield the most catastrophic consequences.

“If you have an impact that fractures the skull or that causes the head to rotate very quickly, it can cause brain injuries which can kill you,” says Simms.

In the case of impact with a vehicle, the speed at which the vehicle is travelling can make all the difference – yet the introduction of a 30km/h speed limit on Dublin’s Quays has raised the hackles of many motorists.

“Without doubt, the speed limit of 30km an hour, the one that people complain about, is in fact a major benefit to the safety of cyclists,” says Simms.

In fact, there is data to show that while 10 per cent of pedestrians are likely to die on impact with a vehicle travelling at 30km/h, this jumps to a whopping 80 per cent if the vehicle is travelling at 50km/h. Similar results would pertain to cyclists.

“If you can reduce the impact speed of vehicles against pedestrians and cyclists from 50km/h to 30km/h, you will see a big benefit,” he says.

Those wearing helmets should be mindful that they are not immune to injury, though helmets undeniably do provide protection in some instances.

“In the event that you fall off a bicycle and hit the ground, then most certainly a helmet will make a difference. In the event that you are hit by a truck and run over, almost certainly it won’t make a difference,” Simms says.

“In all likelihood, a helmet can reduce a moderate injury to a minor one or a minor one to none but in the case of a fatal injury, it may not make a difference.”

Aside from the trauma to the injured and the heartbreak of families who have lost loved ones, cycling injuries and fatalities also carry a significant financial cost to our health system.

A HSE report measuring admissions to acute hospitals for injuries as a result of road traffic collisions put the cost of hospital inpatient treatment to injured cyclists for the four-year period from 2005 to 2008 at €4.2 million, that’s an average of €5,173 per injured cyclist.

Startlingly, the HSE report also found that the number of injured cyclists admitted to acute hospitals for injuries as a result of road traffic collisions far exceeds those reported to Garda and therefore recorded by the Road Safety Authority (RSA).

For the five-year period from 2005 to 2009, 109 serious injuries among cyclists were recorded in RSA figures while almost 10 times that number, 1,050 cyclists, were admitted to acute hospitals.

As patients admitted to emergency and outpatient departments, private hospitals and those who attended GPs are not included in the HSE report, the real number of cyclist injuries is likely to be higher still.

While he is critical of the fact that the Garda is not being notified of cycling accidents, Dr Mike McKillen, chairman of cyclist.ie, says it’s not surprising.

“When a cyclist is injured, it’s so direct and upfront, they have no protection. We think a lot of them just jump up and with the adrenalin, they don’t realise they have been injured. They get on their bike and they cycle off.”

He cautions motorists that they are required to notify the Garda if they are involved in a collision where a cyclist has been injured.

McKillen agrees there are tensions between cyclists and motorists. “I call it the concept that cyclists are traffic vermin and have to be exterminated. Some drivers deliberately come close to frighten you.”

But, he says, there are faults on both sides. While motorists may be resentful that cyclists can get ahead in congestion, cyclists who flout traffic laws generate an attitude of disrespect, putting fellow cyclists at risk.

To put manners on cyclists, McKillen is calling for cycling instruction to be delivered to every school child in the State.

He says rather than calling for more cycle lanes, cyclist.ie and the Dublin Cycling Campaign point out that cyclists are driving a vehicle and are entitled to be safe on the ordinary road.

In the case of drivers, he says while bus, coach and heavy goods vehicle drivers are required to take a certificate of professional competence course annually which includes an element on vulnerable road users, for taxis, who share bus lanes with cyclists, there is no such requirement.

“Taxi drivers are the number one problem for cyclists in Dublin,” says Mike McKillen. “It’s taxis going too fast and too close in the bus lanes with no training.

“We’re lobbying the Government and the Road Traffic Authority on it,” he says. “There are many more taxi drivers than there are bus drivers.”

But despite the explosion in cycling in the past three years – 90,000 bikes were purchased under the “cycle to work” scheme and Dublinbikes clocked up 3.5 million rides last month – overall the number of cyclist fatalities in Ireland is decreasing.

In fact, since 2007, there has been a 66 per cent drop in cyclist fatalities.

“The fact that there are many more cyclists paradoxically makes roads safer for all road users, because it forces drivers to realise that cyclists are everywhere,” says McKillen.

Rural areas, however, he says are not benefiting from this “critical mass effect” and inappropriate speed limits make things worse.

Despite his research into cycling injuries, Dr Ciarán Simms cycles with his daughters to school each day. Toddler Anna sits on a seat connected to the handlebars of his bike while five-year- old Katie cycles solo behind.

“People think the roads are dangerous and obviously they can be, but they have never been safer,” says Simms.

“We are doing our children a disservice by saying it is too dangerous to cycle. The statistics don’t show that it’s more dangerous than ever before. It’s actually the reverse.”

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The Dublin Cycling Campaign hosts a conference, Growing cycling participation: Closing the gender gap, on Friday, June 22nd at TCD. dublincycling.ie

THE NUMBERS

6 - the number of cyclists killed so far this year

3 out of 4 cycling fatalities in Dublin have been caused by left-turning HGVs

88% of cyclists discharged from hospital following a road traffic related incident were male*

€5,173 - the cost of inpatient treatment per injured cyclist from 2005-2008*

€4.2 million - the cost of inpatient treatment to injured cyclists from 2005-2008*

5,019 - total hospital bed days for cyclists 2005-2009*

66% - the drop in cyclist fatalities since 2007 (RSA Road Collision Fact Book 2010)

*Figures are from Admission to acute hospitals for injuries as a result of road traffic collisions in Ireland 2005-2009, published by the Department of Public Health, February 2011