More, not fewer bicycles will reduce fatalities

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.

31 Comments Posted

  1. Hi Julie,
    I agree with you about the roads not being less safe because cyclists and that human nature is to blame for unsafe roads.

    I don’t think there is enough respect between motorists and cyclists and I think the only thing that will foster this respect is legislation.

    I have seen motorists completely disregard the rights of cyclists and get very annoyed at their very presence. At the same time i have encountered cyclists that completely disobey the rules of the road while riding; things like cutting off cars and driving against the lights.

    I just think that both motorist and cyclists should be taken seriously given the same rules and suffer the same consequences if the rules are not followed I think this would make both more aware of their surroundings and foster a better relationship.

  2. Trevor29:

    True, automation will take maybe a decade, all depending on how fast things go with the politics and investment (technology is not the issue. we have the tools). A citywide rail system will also take decades and it’s not a solution to anything – just a costly white elephant in the making.

    The real ‘immediate’ solution is comprehensive congestion charging, for efficient demand control.

  3. I think the answer to the problem is that there is a need for more bicycle lanes to be built and also that bicyclists should adhere to the rules of the road and not just ride where they want of which in turn causes traffic problems.

  4. Gerrit – you mean make the lower part of the truck look more like the lower part of a bus?

    Why not?


  5. Trevor,

    Short of putting ground hugging flexable “skirts” on a truck, nothing is going to stop a cyclist being killed when falling under (as opposed to being hit by) a truck.

  6. As people who have read my posts on other threads may be aware, I live in Christchurch, not Auckland, and I don’t know Tamaki Drive, hence my question about whether the trucks should have been on Tamaki Drive. However if it is also a bus route, then it should be wide enough for trucks and buses as well as cyclists. Even if the road was wide enough for trucks, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a road that is intended for trucks, although I accept that trucking firms have to make deliveries to and pickups from all over the place and therefore it is inevitable that at least some trucks will need to use this road.

    If you looked at a truck with the aim of reducing fatalities, you would quickly conclude that it is not a vehicle that you would want to have an accident with. Cars are much more streamlined and have lower bumpers so a cyclist being hit by a car is likely to be thrown clear rather than being run over by the car. A cyclist hit by a truck is much less likely to survive the experience, or fully recover if they do survive. Yet there is little requirement for trucks to be more forgiving, even though the average truck travels much further than the average car.


  7. The silliness of the argument regarding trucks is shown by the size of the buses that use Tamaki Drive.

    Much longer and wider then most medium trucks.

    Should buses be banned?

    And more kids get killed in their own driveways by cars then are killed by trucks backing up in public. Should cars be banned from private driveways?

  8. Erik,

    So to suit cyclist, legal use of the roads by truck is to banned because they cant see diagonally backwards?

    More sillyness.

    Anyone with a mediocrity of common snse knows to stay away from behind a parked vehicle to may or may not reverse.

    This together with the fact that most smaller delivery trucks emit a warning sound when in reverse gear should warn 99.999% of the population to stay clear.

    Even bigger truck have legitimate reasons for travelling even on the cyclist favourite route.

    Banning is not the answer.

    Self preservation by cyclist to use the cycle way is the preffered option to reducing cycling fatalities.

    And the truck in this partiicular instance was not reversing but was legally on the road and not breaking any transport law.

  9. Gerrit, I think Trevor is right. The mere existance of a truck does not make it a sensible thing. Freight can and should be shifted over to rail and maritime freight. Obviously some freight needs to go by road, such as delivery to shops, but the trucks don’t need to be designed the way they are today. The huge wall behind the driver means that the driver can’t see diagonally backward when turning. This is a big problem, since cyclists are expected to keep to the side of the road where turning truck drivers can’t see them.

  10. Trevor,

    Should the truck have been using that road?


    This trying to spin the cyclist unfortunate accident as anything but just that is now bordering on the silly.

    This accident occured because of a number of unforseen and if inspected in isolation, unrelated “events”, the last being that a truck was passing the spot she fell off her bicycle.

    It all started with her decision to use (legitamately) the road rather then the bicycle lane.

    All the other “events” where of no consequence if she had made the decision to use the bicycle lane.

    Hence I guess the call by the coroner to make bicycle riders use bicycle lanes where availalble.

    We hear nothing but complaints from the lycra boys and girls that the Tamaki Drive bicycle lane is not suitable for the 30 to 50 kh speed they want to do.

    Well sorry folks the Tamaki Drtive bicycle lane is a shared with pedestrians and as such you must ride to the conditions. Just like the road code says we must.

    If the conditions dictate you can only ride at 5kh because of those pesky pedestrians, so be it.

    Same for the car and truck users on Tamaki Drive, if the road is busy and the cyclist many then at best you may only do 30kh, as those are the conditions prevalant at the time.

    Those are the conditions prevalant on the road.


  11. Another aspect of this case is that the vehicle that actually killed the cyclist was a truck, not a car. Trucks are wider than cars, and the cyclist may have survived if it had been a car passing at the time. Should the truck have been using that road? How much of road design is based on cars rather than trucks?


  12. If anyone wants to see what Andrew’s talking about in richer context, click through to his blog link.

  13. AA – that won’t happen soon. I would guess that it will take 15-20 years before there will be a significant drop in the number of car parks needed due to automation of the cars. Besides, the automated cars still need to go somewhere to park and recharge. The difference is that one automated car may serve the needs of a number of car users during the day rather than just one car owner.

    Meanwhile we need solutions that can be implemented in months rather than years.


  14. Trevor29:

    When cars are fully automated they will be gone. Along with the rail system and buses too. Because with automation, transport will become a taxi service universally – once your car drops you off it doesn’t park up, it drives away.

  15. “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!).” – the traffic engineers might just be doing their job and focusing on the 99.999 percent of vehicle types that actually use the roads, all of which are driven and ridden in by real people, with real places to go and real jobs to do.

    With the examples you gave, you seem to be ignoring that NZ is, in the main, a hilly country. Christchurch, sure. But elsewhere, it’s not going to happen.

  16. Trevor has a really good point. I recently moved from Wellington to Blenheim, and the biggest improvement I have found while cycling isnt the flat land, isn’t the lack of traffic, isn’t the wider roads. Its the lack of parked cars. There is just so much more room on the roads without parked cars everywhere.

    When there are parked cars, you need to ride at least 1 metre away from them when passing, if not more. When there is just the kerb, I can comfortably ride 0.5m or less away from it.

  17. I posted a comment yesterday which disappeared. In it I pointed out that part of the problem is cars parked on the side of the road. If they weren’t there, there would be plenty of room for both cyclists and motorists. With the parked cars present, there is only just enough room for all three, and not enough room if a car door is open or a car manoeuvering into or out of the parking space, or if one cyclist wants to pass another.

    Get rid of the park cars and the situation would be much better.


  18. Bikes and cars don’t mix well. Best case scenario would be fully segregated cycle paths instead of the extra lanes devoted to extra cars we have currently. What ever helps more people cycle or walk more is better.

    But first, somehow, we need more cyclists and less cars.

    See the breakdown of mortality from not cycling versus road accident deaths in the above dialogue from Professor Lars Bo Andersen, University of Southern Denmark. Proves that, while cycling road accidents are a very emotional and vivid example of the dangers of bikes mixing it up with cars, the real danger is the incredibly low cycling modal share NZ (shamefully) has.

    Not cycling is killing us faster than our (unoptimal) shared-mode roads ever will.

  19. Hi photonz1! You’re right about the benefits of providing fully seperated cycle paths – and I think/hope that’s not what Julie Anne is saying. I don’t know if I would hold London up as the best example, but the Netherlands, certainly. Their cycle infrastructure is world class and includes many seperated cycle paths. But not everywhere – in some places, they have low speed limits and traffic calming measures so that cyclists and vehicles can share the road. The point is that their traffic engineers don’t consider riding a bicycle to be a ‘dangerous thing’, and they actually prioritise walking and cycling facilities in their planning.

    What I find interesting is that people who state that driving is safe ignore the huge cost of health problems relating to inactivity. You’re actually much safer cycling, although you might not think it.

  20. hi PhotoNZ. But do London force cyclists to ride ONLY on those off-road cycle lanes and wear flouro at all times? I am pretty sure they don’t because I have actually been to a presentation where somebody from London transport talked about the changes they were making.

    Julie is not arguing that building more and better off-road cycle lanes in Auckland would NOT help to increase the number of cyclists on our roads.

    Both common sense and evidence suggests more cycling lanes would increase cycle rates:

    I think she is making the point that the key to reducing cycling accidents per km traveled is quite simply to have cycling become a higher proportion of total mode share.

    Once we reach about 3-5% of all trips being made by bicycle, the international evidence suggests that drivers WILL start looking out for cyclists (for example, when they open car doors or turn right) and we will see a dramatic reduction in the rate of cycling accidents.

    But the problem is that the more unattractive we make cycling to the average person – through forcing them to wear flouro, ride on inadequate off-road cycle lanes such as those on Tamaki Drive, and thus generally enforcing the impression they probably already hold that cycling is an unsafe activity that only fitness freaks engage in – the harder it will be for us to get cycling up to a decent proportion of mode share.

    We need to change our infrastructure but we also need to change societal attitudes to cycling. The suggestions the coroner is making won’t help with that.

  21. Hear Hear! There are two truths the coroner appears to be missing, the first being that the public health and economic benefits of encouraging cycling are enormous, and the second that humans are intrinsically rather vain (and a little lazy), as well as being adverse towards engaging in activities that are portrayed as risky. We cannot change human nature but we can certainly influence human behaviour. By making cycling an easy and ‘normal’ activity, no different to walking or driving we can encourage it, and get people out of their cars into the bargain. Helmets and Hi-vis tend to make cycling look dangerous, a ‘way-out’ activity like skydiving or motocross. Compelled to dress-up for the trip many will choose to drive instead if parking and petrol are affordable. With compulsory hi-vis I’d certainly drive more and bike a lot less, and without our helmet laws I’d have bought a bike rather sooner. We may need to accept that a small (short term) rise in crash-related trauma cases is probably a fair price for a large fall in heart attacks and obesity related deaths. I get told that biking to work here in Christchurch is far too dangerous, but I suspect that being injured by a car while cycling is not that much worse in terms of ruining one’s life than mangling or killing someone else in a moment’s inattention while driving…

  22. Julie Anne says “The problem with this antiquated approach to road safety is pretty obvious”

    But London has done just what you say is antequated – set up a whole system of arterial cycleways on separate paths – and has been praised as being ahead of most of the rest of the world because of it.

    It’s led to many MORE people riding bikes, and LOWER accident rates – and you say cycles on separate paths is antequated?

    It doesn’t matter how much you educate drivers – they will keep running over cyclists ( if they still crash into trains, trucks and other cars because they don’t see them, they’re going to keep running over cyclists and motorcyclists).

  23. Wearing high vis may make an individual safer, but as a group, cyclists would be less safe as cycling numbers would drop, thus reducing the safety in numbers effect. If cycling is to be made safer for everyone, oddly, the best way is to probably do away with the compulsary helmets law.

    If they make high vis compulsary, then having your car headlights on at all times may as well be made compulsary too.

  24. It’s not just the planners who want to keep the traffic moving, its the people, too.

    Check out this roadside placard.

    Anyone who travels Oxford Road at the Rangiora end will be familiar with this.

    However, there is an underlying argument about safety. We the people are clearly content about the current level of risk versus reward of driving. Per mile, and these numbers do wobble about a lot due to the small number of commercial plane crashes, the risk of having a dying in a car accident is about the same as dying in a commercial plane crash. And a lot safer than flying in a Cessna, whose pilots are always crashing them into things.

    Thus there is unlikely to be a populist movement for improving the lot for cyclists.

    What can’t be argued is that moving traffic of different characteristics away from each other does lead to less accidents. Thats one reason why minimum speed limits exist.

  25. Well said Julie. Road engineers want to pretend they’re airport and rail engineers. Big boys toys, and no pedestrians allowed.

    Riding a bus is ten times safer than riding in a car, and trains and planes are even safer. But you’ll never hear the road safety people say that. For them it’s just cars, cars, cars.

  26. Sadly, this is an argument I’ve seen others make too – that people should essentially not ride bikes on roads. I have put submissions in for years to the local (rural) council about making it safer for cyclists, but they have never responded in any constructive way. We had to stop our morning ride down the road because it was simply too dangerous with no verge at all in places, including some blind corners and traffic behaving as though we were not there.

  27. I’m not familiar with Coroner Matenga’s background and I’ve not followed the specifics of this case, but I think there’s generally an issue with the coronial inquest system where coroners aren’t specialists in what they’re investigating.

    For some time I’ve had an interest in back-country safety and accidents, which is also an area that coroners tend not to have much direct experience. Some inquests have come to conclusions which, to me and others I’ve spoken with, seemed misleading or just wrong. The Bennington/Jackson inquest, which was high profile when it occurred a couple of years ago, was one of these. In my eyes its conclusion focused on small and often irrelevant details, and didn’t clearly address some of the more fundamental factors. When I asked around, even where there was agreement it was sometimes excused as just being because the coroner wasn’t much of an expert in the domain. If that’s a valid excuse for a coronial conclusion then it causes me to wonder why we’d bother having an inquest in the first place.

    Now I wonder if coroners out of their comfort zone always have the most appropriate witnesses, or ask the most relevant questions of them. I’ve seen Constable Brian Hensley state that he’s seen cyclists do stupid things, but what I can’t see is if he was led into it, or if he said 10 times as much about drivers doing stupid things, or if most other police who deal with traffic issues share his thoughts.

    As well as I can tell, there isn’t much of a system to provide peer review conclusions reached by inquests, aside from the ability to ignore them, but that seems totally wrong.

  28. Great post Julie Anne. Personally I would like to see compulsary helments dumped even though I went to school with the boy whose mother started to helmet campaign after he had an accident. Especially liked the Confessions of a Recovering Engineer.

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