Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Research puts bike riding 500 times less risky than rugby

Cycling in New Zealand is safer than many of us think, says University of Auckland researcher Professor Alistair Woodward. Photo/File
Cycling in New Zealand is safer than many of us think, says University of Auckland researcher Professor Alistair Woodward. Photo/File

Hopping on a bike is often seen as one of the most perilous things one can do, but researchers who crunched the numbers say cycling is far safer than we think.

In fact, the University of Auckland team behind the new study say that even if you rode a bike three times a week, on average, you would only suffer an injury worthy of an ACC claim every 70 years.

Comparatively, cycling was also more than 100 times less than the risk of snow sports and 500 times safer than playing rugby.

Cyclist and study co-author Professor Alistair Woodward said the research was motivated by continually hearing people say they'd love to cycle but didn't out of fear of being injured.

"So that really prompted me to get a student working on a project to try to find out exactly what the risk was and how it compared with other things that are relatively common."

Woodward wasn't surprised to find the risk was very small. Taking injuries that led to claims to ACC, they found these occur roughly nine times in every 100,000 short urban bike trips.

In terms of risk, cycling on the road half an hour, three times a week was similar to doing do-it-yourself activities at home twice a month, and five times safer than riding a horse for 1.5 hours twice a week, 140 times safer than skiing half a day for four to five times a year and 530 times safer than playing rugby once every three weeks.

So why did fear of injury deter so many people from getting around on a bike?

"We suggest this is a consequence of living with a transport system that is dominated in every way by the motor car," Woodward said.

"The bicycle has been pushed to the margins, where it is seen as unusual, different, not mainstream, and unfamiliar."

In the past, a hostile environment on New Zealand roads had led to a "vicious spiral". There had been fewer bikes, leading to greater fearfulness and increased resistance to road changes in favour of bikes.

"We need to turn this round. The most powerful way to bring bikes back from the margin is to provide safe spaces for cyclists of all abilities to get to where they want to ride."

Separated cycle ways are part of the fix, he said, but not enough.

There needed to be changes on the road as well, such as slower vehicle speeds, better intersections, and wider shoulders to include the bicycle.

"More people riding, and public spaces that celebrate two-wheeled choices, will do two things: make cycling even safer, and reduce the fear of the bike."

But Woodward acknowledged regularly cycling could still prove dangerous and an uncomfortable experience for some.

"If I ride into town along Remuera Rd, it's a real headache having to watch out for people opening their doors or not seeing you," he said.

"Because I've done it so often, I know the chances of getting actually knocked off my bike are pretty small but it's a pain in the neck that you have to watch out."

Cycling Action Network spokesman Patrick Morgan said the study, just published in the Journal of Transport and Health, was "stronger evidence for what we already knew, that riding a bike is actually pretty safe".

"I think overall, the evidence shows that riding a bike will add years to your life, and also, life to your years."

Cycling in New Zealand: what the statistics show

• The study showed a half-hour cycling trip each week was 1.2 to 2.2 times safer than DIY, 1.3 to 5.3 times safer than horse riding (1.5 hours twice a week), 60 to 140 times safer than skiing (half a day, 4-5 times per year) and 460 to 530 times safer than rugby (one game every three weeks).

• Almost 20 per cent of household trips in New Zealand are less than 2km, and almost half are less than 6km, and could be covered by cycling. But cycling in New Zealand accounts for less than 2 per cent of total time spent travelling on roads and the reason most frequently given for not using bicycles is fear of injury.

• Despite recent growth in cycling in New Zealand cities, the annual number of fatalities declined in the last decade, reaching a 25-year low of five deaths in 2016.

- NZ Herald

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