As a keen cyclist, motorist, pedestrian and advocate for physical activity, I find myself compelled to share my thoughts on last night’s BBC1 Panorama.  The programme showed extensive and shocking footage from cyclists who have been killed, injured and had near misses as a result of dangerous and inconsiderate driving. 

This was scary and depressing viewing.   I’ve been cycling as my “default” mode of transport for over 25 years and have been fortunate not to have had an accident (other than the odd self-inflicted tumble). Given how dangerous cycling is portrayed to be, I either have one hugely lucky gene, or it’s only a matter of time (hoping I haven’t jinxed myself by writing this).     

I decided to look up the statistics myself. 

Cycling is safer than we think

After watching Panorama, you’d be forgiven for thinking cycling is an extremely risky pastime.  In actual fact, you are no more likely to be killed cycling on UK roads than you are as a pedestrian. 

According to Cycling UK, there are around 10.4 million cycling trips for every cycling fatality.   Let’s imagine I’ve cycled on average 6 trips a week for 25 years.  That’s 7800 trips.   Even if I cycle for another 50 years (23,400 trips by the time I’m 95 years old), I still have an incredibly miniscule chance of being killed on my bike.     

But what about injuries?  Per one billion vehicle miles, 1194 cyclists were seriously injured in 2019 (838 in 2020), and 3668 slightly injured (2374 in 2020).  By my amateur calculations, that means every 27,262 miles one cyclist might be slightly injured and every 83,752 miles one cyclist might be seriously injured.  

These figures are likely calculated on the idea of lots of different cyclists covering a number of miles (which would have much more between-cyclist variability), rather than one cyclist covering all the miles (which could be higher or lower risk depending on their characteristics and where they’re cycling). 

Let’s say I’ve travelled 31,200 miles over those 25 years (an average of 24 miles per week) and I’m a generally cautious cyclist, perhaps it’s not so astounding that I’ve gone without a knock to this point.

Given these figures, it was disappointing to see such a one-sided presentation of risk on Panorama.  Cycling has numerous benefits not only for the individual (e.g., improved mental and physical health, reduced cost, shorter commuting times) but also for society (e.g., cleaner air, reduced traffic congestion). 

The long-term risks of physical inactivity far outweigh the statistical likelihood of getting injured or killed on a bike. 

Motorists aren’t all bad (neither are cyclists)

Some of the scenes on Panorama were incredibly distressing and nothing can take away the pain of the families who have lost a loved one, nor the injustice of the lenient sentences given for death by dangerous driving.

But Panorama’s sensationalist attempt to pitch cars v bikes only added fuel to a fire that doesn’t need any help to burn.   What we ended up with was a rather bleak picture of “no hope”.       

Motorists were portrayed as callous monsters, cyclists as self-righteous antagonists.   

Neither of which is true of course.    

In 25 years of cycling, the vast majority of motorists I’ve encountered are courteous, considerate and simply trying – like me – to get from A to B.  On the flip side, I see a growing number of cyclists, e-cyclists, and e-scooterers who don’t stop at red lights and are weaving dangerously in and out of traffic.   This can be challenging for even the most alert motorist to navigate, and I understand the frustration law-abiding motorists feel when they’re always labeled the “bad guys”.

The most common contributory factor for serious accidents involving cyclists between 2015-2020 was “driver or rider failed to look properly” (Gov statistics)

We are all human and, although I try to be courteous to other road users (in both my car and on my bike), I can’t claim I’ve never had an inattentive moment behind the wheel.  

Panorama made the pertinent point that if you’re cycling dangerously, it is mainly yourself you are putting at risk; if you’re driving dangerously you are also a risk to others. The programme was a stark reminder of my responsibility as a driver, and how a minor lapse of attention can devastate lives in a second.  I can only hope Panorama achieved something positive in making us all stop, think, and pay attention to our driving behaviour. 

Build it and they will come

One of the most frustrating elements of Panorama was the focus on individual attitudes.   We know the problem is far bigger than this.  Our cycling infrastructure is poor compared to European countries such as The Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark, and UK drivers are less accustomed to sharing roads with cyclists (a likely contributor to the fact more than one of my European friends had a bicycle accident within weeks of moving to the UK, despite being experienced cyclists).

If the environment isn’t supportive, people (particularly women) are less likely to have the confidence to cycle.    Which is why it’s so encouraging to see initiatives such as Leicester City Council’s implementation of a cycling and walking-friendly city centre (also Chris Boardman and Manchester City Council’s Made To Move programme, Sheffield’s Move More programme, plus the active infrastructure work here in Liverpool city region). 

It’s just a shame Panorama focused on the poor use of Leicester’s cycling facilities and talked to people they knew were going to complain about it.  Fortunately the project lead highlighted it’s not going to change overnight, but change is happening.  

Please don’t give up Leicester City Council! 

Change behaviour, and attitudes will follow

It takes time to change behaviour, and we know from cities around the world that having a safe and attractive cycling infrastructure will get more people cycling, and will make cycling safer. With the increase of e-bikes and e-scooters (I was nearly hit by one on the pavement this morning), the need for segregated cycle lanes is now more pressing than ever.  

Sometimes behaviour needs to change first, then attitudes will follow. 

Once motorists realise cyclists are taking up far less space than they would if they were in cars, we’ll all be celebrating together. 

Comments

Please comment below to share your thoughts as a cyclist, motorist or pedestrian (or all three).

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Dr Paula Watson is a HCPC-registered Sport and Exercise Psychologist and Director of Made Up to Move Ltd.  

Made Up to Move offers psychology services to help people with the mental aspects of exercise, food and weight.   If you’d like further support in understanding and changing your own relationship with movement or food, please find details of 1-to-1 support here.  

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