Cycle to work and someone is bound to tell you how brave you are, or at least imply it, because the perception is that cycling on today’s roads is dangerous. Except, actually, it isn’t.
Per mile, more people get killed walking than cycling according to the UK's National Travel Survey and you’re more likely to suffer an injury requiring medical care while gardening than on your bike. Cycling is statistically safe. "Per year, there are 10 to 15 fatalities due to people falling off bikes with no other vehicle involved," says safety expert and co-author of Health on the Move, Malcolm Wardlaw.
"Around 200 under-65s each year die in falls while walking. I don’t remember the last time I read a newspaper report of a pedestrian killed falling down steps, yet far rarer cases of cyclists killed in falls get a lot of media coverage – together with whether the cyclist was wearing a helmet or not."
Even when you throw motor vehicles into the mix, cycling remains stubbornly safe. It’s a little more risky than driving in the UK, taken as an average, but not much. And it’s not like UK cycle commuters are constantly running the gauntlet compared with their counterparts in the Netherlands. Malcolm Wardlaw says: "The difference in risk between UK cyclists and Dutch cyclists is less than the difference between French drivers and UK drivers. French drivers face higher long-term risks than British cyclists."
So why are UK cyclists and would be cyclists so paranoid about safety? "Minority status generates fear," he says. John Franklin, cycling skills expert and author of Cyclecraft, agrees that the perception of cycling risk doesn’t match the reality. "There’s nothing in life that’s risk free," he says. "It’s about the management of risk, not simply the fear of risk." As a cycle commuter, managing risk means being assertive, and behaving like traffic so that others will treat you as traffic.
"Cyclists need to learn how to influence others on the road," says Franklin. "That’s largely determined by how and where you ride on the road. What you try to do is ride in a way that deters other people from starting to put you at risk. If you’re coming up to a side road where quite a lot of traffic turns left and there’s someone driving harshly behind you, there’s a good chance he’ll try to overtake and cut across you to turn left. So you ride in a way and place that if he does do that, he's forced to make a much wider movement to give you more space. And it makes the manoeuvre more difficult for him, so he’s less likely to do it.
"Good positioning is key. Position yourself as a driver with the rest of the traffic, not hugging the kerb. The ‘primary position’ is in the centre of the moving traffic lane. You’re obliging others to acknowledge you as another user of the road and not someone they can ignore. You’re causing them to think." Franklin recommends taking a skills training course. "When people take cycle training, fear is addressed in a rational way," he says. "It’s like removing chains from them."
Eight tips for safer cycling
1 Learn the skills
Cycling training today isn’t aimed solely at kids. National Standards training is a three-tier programme covering everything from basic bike control to complicated urban journeys. To find out more or locate an instructor, see www.ctc.org.uk/cycletraining. The bible for safe, skilled cycling is John Franklin’s Cyclecraft (£13, www.tso.co.uk).
2 Get out of the gutter
You should always be at least 50cm from the kerb, and sometimes further. Positioning yourself in the middle of the lane is called ‘the primary position’ or ‘taking the lane’. It makes you more visible and forces cars to overtake properly or wait until it is safe to do so.
3 Eyeball drivers
Eye contact with a driver lets you know they have seen you. Look purposefully right at them. Have they clocked you? Good. There’ll be no “sorry, mate, I didn’t see you” moment. It’s useful for almost any manoeuvre, whether you’re turning right or approaching a junction.
4 Signal like you mean it
Signalling broadcasts your intentions to other road users. You’re not asking their permission; you are telling them unambiguously where you’re going. Check over your shoulder early so you can change position smoothly and predictably. If there’s following traffic, eyeball the lead driver, signal clearly and begin your manoeuvre.
5 Magic roundabouts
Highway Code rule 62 says “you may feel safer keeping to the left”. Rubbish. You won’t. You’re less visible to traffic on or entering the roundabout. Take your lane as you approach. Take it on the roundabout too, even if you’re going left. Check, signal, then peel off the roundabout at your exit.
6 Traffic light tactics
Don’t jump red lights. It infuriates drivers and you may get T-boned by someone accelerating for an amber. Wait, behind the advance stop line if there is one, and not in the gutter. Take your lane. That way nothing can squeeze dangerously past or left hook you.
7 Filter tips
Overtaking on the right is best for visibility. Only filter up the inside if the traffic is stationary – watch for doors opening and pedestrians crossing – or moving at walking pace. Never go up the inside of a long vehicle: you could die. Once you’re past, get back in your lane.
8 Safer slip roads
Where the slip road joins your road: cross carefully over to the slip road at the hatch markings before the slip road joins the main road, stopping if necessary, then follow the slip road onto the main road. At an exit slip road: take the slip road until you can carefully rejoin the main road at the hatch markings.