I was recently asked to write something about cycle safety. OK, so it was for another place, but I thought I would try it out here first. Well my first thought was “is cycling dangerous”? Well no, not really, over the last 40 years cycling, along with most forms of road travel, has become safer, mainly due to attempts to idiot proof cars.

Cyclists account for only 4% of road fatalities (2008 UK figures) compared with 17.1% for motorcyclists, 19.6% for Pedestrians, and 50.2% for car occupants. When these figures are adjusted to reflect the numbers of people travelling and the distance they travel, we find that riding a motorbike is the most dangerous, followed by travelling in a car! The level of risk involved in cycling is about the same as (or lower than) walking, even though most cyclists are riding on the road (it should be noted that in the UK on average 70 people are killed by motor vehicles on the pavement every year). Indeed regular cyclists have a life expectancy that is at least 2 years longer than average, they have fitness levels of someone 10 years their junior, also better mental health and are healthier in older age.

It is strange then that many people’s perception of road safety is the opposite. I often hear parents saying that they won’t let their children ride on the road, even though they did as children, because “it is more dangerous now”. Where does this idea come from? When I did start to research this post, I carried out an internet search for “cycle safety”. The top hits were mostly sites sponsored by the British Government, which all start by telling you how dangerous cycling is and quoting the number of cycle casualties, without putting the figures into context. An object lesson in how not to promote cycling as a safe activity and put them off by using fear. The simple fact is, cycling is safe when compared to risky activities such as gardening and travelling by car. The most effective way to reduce the likelihood of injury when cycling is to increase the number of people who cycle. When cycle use doubles, the risk of injury per cyclist falls by 35% to 40%. Having clearly stated that cycling is safe, it has to be recognised that no activity is 100% safe and there are risks out there. So what can you do to minimise the risks further?

First off, your bike should be the right size for you and set up so that you are comfortable. If you are not sure how to do this, then seek advice from an organisation like the Bike Station or your local bike shop.

Next, make sure you maintain your bicycle properly, here are a few things to check on a regular basis:

  • Tyres: take a quick look, make sure are no tears or bulges in the tyre wall, then check the tyre pressure. If it is low, pump up and wait a few minutes to check for any punctures, and if necessary change the inner tube.
  • Wheels: spin both wheels, watch for wobbles which may suggest a loose or broken spoke. If the spokes are fine and the wheel still wobbles, don’t ride as the wheel need to be serviced. Finally check the quick release levers (if fitted) on the wheel hubs and make sure they are secure so that the wheel will not come loose.
  • Brakes: check the brake pads and replace if worn. Test the brakes by rolling the bike forward (while standing next to it) and applying the front brake, the back of the bike should rear up. Then roll the bike back and apply the rear brake, this time the front of the bike should rear up. If necessary tighten the brake cables. Also check that the cables are in good condition and not frayed.
  • Controls: stand astride of the front wheel, gripping it with your knees, and waggle the handle bars, to make sure nothing is loose. If there is movement don’t ride, as the bike needs to be serviced. Also check the brake and gear levers and cables, to make sure they are in good working order.
  • Drive train: check the gears by lifting the rear wheel off the ground and turn the pedals by hand. If the gears do not change easily, the gear cable may have stretched. Also look at the chain, it should be clean and running smoothly, oil if necessary, especially if it shows signs of rust. Then grip the pedal tightly and check to see if there is any play in the crank-arm/bottom bracket. If you find problems here, again don’t ride as the bike needs to be serviced.
  • Saddle: make sure the saddle is the right height for you and is in line with the frame, also make sure the maximum height mark on the seat post is not visible.
  • Drop Test: lift the bike 5-10cm off the ground, then let it drop, is there anything loose or rattling?

Advice for cycling on the roads:

If you are new to cycling or haven’t cycled on the road for a long time, then cycle training could be a good idea. The CTC maintains a list of Accredited Cycle Trainers qualified to the National Standards throughout the UK. Remember, cyclists do have the right to ride on the roads, and they should ride with respect to the rules of the road and other road users.

So here are a few things cyclists should do:

  • You should always be able to stop within the distance you can see.
  • Ride positively and decisively. It helps motorists to understand what you plan to do.
  • Think ahead. Anticipate drivers’ actions. Catch their eye.
  • Be visible. Ride well clear of the kerb, wear something colourful, and always use lights in poor day-time visibility or after dark.
  • Show drivers what you plan to do. Always look and signal before you start, stop or turn. Ride a straight line past parked cars rather than weaving in and out between them.
  • Move over, when it’s safe and convenient. Two-abreast is often OK, but try not to hold up other traffic.
  • Follow the Highway Code, it is there for everybody.

And a few things cyclists should not do:

  • jump red lights, it is not big and it is not clever
  • ride on pavements (unless they are shared use paths or you are under the age of ten)
  • ride across pedestrian crossings (unless it is a Toucan crossing)
  • attempt to filter up the left hand side of long vehicle waiting at road junctions, even if the driver is not signalling left.

Just to keep things balanced (let’s not forget that driver error is the cause of 85% of road traffic accidents), here is a list of things drivers should do:

  • do not jump red lights, the Highway Code applies to you too
  • Think bike. Expect to see cyclists, and take care.
  • Slow down and drive smoothly. Keep within speed limits. Expect sudden movements by cyclists, especially in windy weather and on bad road surfaces.
  • Signal: always at roundabouts and every time you pass a cyclist.
  • Watch for riders on the inside, don’t overtake them before you turn left. Don’t cut them up.
    Don't cut up cyclist
    (Rule 182 Highway Code)
  • Give cyclists space – at least as much room as you would when overtaking a car – and never force past them.
    Give cyclists space
    (Rule 163 Highway Code)
  • Be patient – a few seconds for a cyclist will not affect your total journey time, it is all those other cars on the roads which are causing the congestion.
  • Right-turning cyclists need space and time.
  • Park considerately and always look for cyclists before opening a car door.
  • Use dipped headlights, cyclists are dazzled by full-beam headlights, just like everyone else.
  • Expect speed from bikes. Think of a bike as a vehicle – it is. Cyclists can be fast movers – 20mph or more.
  • Advanced stop lines: Motorists, including motorcyclists, MUST stop at the first white line reached if the lights are amber or red and should avoid blocking the way or encroaching on the marked area at other times, e.g., if the junction ahead is blocked. Allow cyclists time and space to move off when the green signal shows.
    Advanced Stop Lines
    Rule 178 Highway Code

Finally a few other things which drivers should know:

  • Cyclist do have the right to use the roads and they do pay for them as well, we all pay for the roads.
  • Cyclists can feel threatened by inconsiderate driving. They have a right to space on the road and need extra room at junctions and roundabouts where cars change speed, position and direction.
  • Cyclists ride away from the kerb, not to annoy motorists but:
    • to avoid drains, potholes and debris
    • to be seen as they come to junctions with side roads
    • to discourage drivers from squeezing past when it’s too narrow
  • Cyclists turning right are exposed – and need extra consideration from motorists, especially on multi-lane roads with fast-moving traffic.
  • Cyclists can be forced into faster traffic – by vehicles parked in cycle lanes, at junctions or on double yellow lines, so be considerate when you park.

Final thoughts:
Mutual respect and consideration for other road users makes for safer and more enjoyable travel for all. Acknowledging a courtesy does make a difference, so don’t be shy.