Cycling safety - conventional wisdom vs reality

With 15,8 killed cyclists per million inhabitants per year (CARE/Eurostat 2005) Poland is one of the most dangerous European countries for cycling. Cycling has only 1-2% share in modal split, but nearly 10% share in road fatalities. In 2007 an in-depth study on cycling accidents in Warsaw was done by Zielone Mazowsze, followed by a national study by General Directorate for National Roads and Motorways in 2009 and many other local or regional studies. The studies’ findings are consistent and challenge conventional wisdom on cycling safety.

The stereotype of a bicycle accident in Poland involves drunk cyclist travelling at the night without any lights. Most safety campaigns follow this stereotype and focus on equipping the cyclists with more and more high visibility reflective gadgets, while the police keeps testing them for traces of beer. However, even a brief look at the accident data show that both lighting and alcohol are marginal factors. Most of cycling accidents happen in full daylight (82%), only in 1% of cases the police reports lack of lights as the accident cause and only 6% of cyclists killed on Polish roads exceeded a fairly strict legal limit of 0.02% blood alcohol content.

As for the type of accidents, cyclists (especially beginners) are most afraid of being hit by car approaching from behind. But in fact rear-end collisions constitute only 15% of bicycle accidents, and side collisions are almost 4 times more common (59%).

Most of cycling accidents are collisions with cars (80% accidents, 72% fatalities). Heavy Goods Vehicles took part in only 8% of cycling accidents, but in 22% of fatal ones – this is one place where the conventional wisdom got it right, the consequences of being hit by a lorry are serious.

Main causes of accidents are: failure to yield right of way (by both drivers and cyclists), poor overtaking (drivers), poor turning (cyclists). It seems that both drivers and cyclists have problems with correctly estimating the distance, speed and intentions of other road users. There is also a problem of left turning – in Poland cyclists are not allowed to make a two-phase left turn, and single-phase left turn on a busy road is too complex especially for less proficient cyclists.

Most of accidents happen under fine (77%) or at most cloudy (13%) weather conditions, on a dry road (82%). This may be related to higher volumes of cycling traffic, but also more risky behavior of drivers.

In Warsaw as many as 28% of cycling accidents happened on junctions with working traffic lights, but only 7% were caused by running a red light by either drivers or cyclists. In over 20% of accidents all its participants had green light and managed to collide anyway. Traditional traffic light programs are not safe for cyclists, especially travelling on segregated facilities.

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