Julie Anne Genter

More, not fewer bicycles will reduce fatalities

by Julie Anne Genter

Forgive me for thinking that the Coroner’s goal is to reduce cycle deaths by reducing the number of people willing to travel by bicycle.

New safety rules to avoid cycle deaths mooted during the Coroner’s inquest include innovative ideas such as mandatory high-vis clothing and compulsory use of cycle lanes.

A few years back, a colleague of mine explained to me quite clearly the provenance of the problem. He was a traditional middle-aged traffic engineer from Townsville who had worked at the Department of Main Roads in Queensland before joining our consultancy. He commuted in a company car, of course, and it would not be an exaggeration to say the man is seriously overweight and a regular watcher of Fox News.

He said, “Cyclists are a safety hazard. We don’t want to encourage people to ride bikes unless it’s on a separated path.”

Yup, folks. In the mind of many old school traffic engineers, and apparently the Coroner, people riding bikes for transport are a safety hazard, and they must be discouraged.

The problem with this antiquated approach to road safety is pretty obvious: even if we remove all the bicycles from our roads, there will certainly still be fatal traffic accidents. Whereas, if you removed all the cars… traffic fatalities would plummet to near zero. Just increasing the number of bicycles on the road reduces crashes (PDF).

There’s a clear relationship between road fatalities and vehicle kilometres travelled; countries with higher levels of walking and cycling for transport have lower per capita vehicle kilometres travelled, and fewer serious injury and fatalities on the road.

So what is the real safety hazard?

It’s human nature to focus on individual actions that contributed to a tragic crash, and the media regularly frame conflict in a tribal way; as “motorists versus cyclists”, as though people are necessarily one or the other.

But the truth is that individuals are behaving within a context set by traffic engineers, a context that has consistently prioritised the speed and volume of motor vehicles over people (often, strangely enough, in the name of improving safety!).

That context can and should be different. The best way to reduce road deaths, and health problems related to inactivity, it to normalise walking and cycling so more people feel it’s a realistic choice.

The more people on the streets on bicycles, the better off we all are.

Published in Economy, Work, & Welfare | Environment & Resource Management | Featured by Julie Anne Genter on Thu, July 26th, 2012   

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