English cyclists 20 times more at risk than motorists

35,000 riders admitted to hospital each year after road accidents

Cyclists are 20 times more likely to be killed or injured on England's roads than motorists, according to a new study.

Researchers from the University of Surrey analysed English hospital admissions over six years –1999 to 2004. They found that an average of 34,652 cyclists a year were injured severely enough to be admitted to hospital, compared with 71,099 drivers and passengers.

As 40 times more car journeys are made each year than bike trips, they concluded that cycling is far more risky, per trip, than travelling by car, although cycling accidents are less likely to be fatal.

This finding comes in the wake of Department for Transport figures that showed a sharp rise in the number of cyclists injured on Britain's roads (includes Scotland and Wales as well as England) – though on nowhere near this scale. The DfT stats showed 16,580 cyclists were injured or killed in the year to June 2009, compared with 143,510 car users.

These figures were based on police reports rather than hospital admissions, which suggests cyclists don't report every accident they are involved in but are more likely than motorists to seek medical treatment.

'When people feel it is unsafe to cycle, they may be right'

Writing in the BMJ journal Injury Prevention, Professor Mike Gill and his colleagues from the university's Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences said: "There is considerable current interest in obesity and in encouraging people to take more exercise, including making journeys on foot or cycle rather than by car. There is also an obvious environmental case for increasing the number of journeys made by non-motorised modes. However, in some circumstances, when people feel that it is unsafe to cycle or walk, they may be right.

"Encouragement of walking and cycling needs to be accompanied by serious efforts to ensure that safe traffic environments are established for pedestrians and cyclists. Better separation of pedestrians and cyclists from motorists and greater awareness among the latter of the risks faced by pedestrians and cyclists are important."

The team add that injury rates among cyclists are far higher in the UK than in the Netherlands and Denmark, and say: "This scale of variation between countries, and our findings of substantial seasonal variation, underline the scope for prevention of unnecessary injury."

Analysis of the figures in the report shows that almost as many child cyclists (under-15s) were injured as adults – 16,395 compared with 18,257. Only a minority of the riders were injured in collisions with motor vehicles – 32 percent of the adults (5,850) and just 19 percent of the children (3,035), although in seven percent of cases the cause was not recorded.

However, the authors point out: "Many injuries to cyclists are coded as not involving a collision with a motor vehicle. However, these non-collision injuries are likely to include some injuries caused when cyclists take avoiding action when, say, a car passes too closely or a car door is opened as they pass.

"Injuries to cyclists are also caused, to an undocumented extent, by road surfaces that are unsuitable for cycles such as uneven or steeply sloping cambers, humps and potholes. Cyclists may also, independently of collision or road surface, wobble and fall. Drivers need to be constantly aware of the presence of cyclists, to give them wide berth and to pass them with caution and at appropriate speed, to minimise injury to cyclists who may themselves be prone to error."

Accidents peak in summertime

The researchers found that, contrary to popular belief, there are far more accidents in summer than in winter. Admissions of adult cyclists peaked in June at a third above average and troughed in December at more than a quarter below average. Admissions for child cyclists in August were almost double the monthly average while those in December were about a fifth below average.

The report's authors said: "The most obvious explanation for the substantial peak of summer injuries to pedal cyclists is that many more people use their bikes during the summer months. A greater proportion of the injuries to cyclists in the winter than the summer were severe.

"Possible explanations include the effects of winter weather and less daylight. Another explanation is that, even at relatively low rates of cycling use, there may be an effect of "safety in numbers" – notably increased awareness of cyclists by car drivers – when cycling increases in the spring and summer."

Debra Rolfe, campaign co-ordinator at national cyclists’ organisation CTC, said: "It's important to remember that the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks by a factor of 20:1. Cyclists live two years longer than non-cyclists, have the health of someone 10 years younger and take 10 percent fewer sick days.

"CTC's Safety in Numbers research has shown that in places where more people cycle, the risks of cycling are lower. In order to get more people cycling, we need to address the fears that deter people from cycling. CTC would like to see greater priority given to traffic law enforcement for all road users, more 20mph speed limits in urban areas and cycle training available to all."

Key findings:

  • On average, 71,099 car occupants seek hospital treatment in England each year for injuries sustained in road accidents, compared with 34,652 cyclists. But an average of 637 trips per person per year are made by car, compared with just 15 by bike.
  • Almost as many child cyclists (under-15s) are injured as adults –  an average of 16,395 a year compared with 18,257.
  • Only a minority of riders are injured in collisions with motor vehicles – 32 percent of adults (5,850) and just 19 percent of children (3,035), although in seven percent of cases the cause is not recorded.
  • The worst month of the year for adult cycle accidents on England's roads is June, with an average of 2,006 hospital admissions. The best is December, with 1,130 injuries. For children, the most dangerous month is August, with an average of 2,713 admissions. The safest time is again December, with an average of just 292 accidents.

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