Safer Cycling – Do Other Countries Already Have the Answer?

By Tanya Fosdick

After attending the International Cycle Safety Conference in Helmond, the Netherlands last week, I am pretty dismayed by how far behind continental Europe we are in terms of thinking about cycle safety; in trying to understand the issues facing cyclists; and undertaking research and development into innovative solutions to improve safety. The recent cluster of cyclist deaths in London have put cycling safety in the spotlight yet I was one of only four UK delegates at the conference (and two of the others were speakers). We need to take the lessons learned from mainland Europe and explore all possible options to improving the situation, rather than continuing with the blame culture that we seem to have now.

The conference opened with two keynote speeches: one from the well-known figure, John Forester, from the United States, followed by a right to reply from Tom Godefrooij of the Dutch Cycling Embassy. John’s speech centred on his objections to the exporting of the Dutch approach to cycling to the USA – he sees segregation as pandering to ‘motordom’ and that it was used in America to control cyclists and remove them for the domain of the motor car. Instead, he argues that cyclists should obey the rules of the road in the same way as motorists do – by riding in the centre of lanes and keeping in the flow of traffic. Tom’s reply included the statement that “cycling should not be elitist but for all” (because riding as John suggests involves confidence, aggression and speed) and that cycling shouldn’t all be about helmets and high visibility clothing. The Dutch approach to segregation has safety as a pre-condition of the infrastructure – that it has to be convenient, practical and safe. And where segregation isn’t possible, integration involves adapting drivers’ behaviours and reducing the speed of motor vehicles to reduce conflict. This attitude seems to lie at the centre of the success of the Netherlands – by having a focus on the cyclist as opposed to the motorist, the entire system works differently to the UK or the USA.

The conference agenda was packed, and for a single topic event, was incredibly varied. The session started with an explanation from the European Commission about the challenges faced in Europe and how the EC wants to work with nation states through guidance, research funding and co-ordination to increase cycling whilst encouraging shared responsibility; risk awareness and training; and the enforcement of rules.

Malcolm Wardlaw of the UK’s Transport and Health Study Group presented results of some research into UK cycle casualty data. Between 60-90% of cyclists hospitalised across Europe were involved in a single bicycle collision (SBC) and many of these go unreported to police. So the research focused on taking Hospital Episode Statistics and combining it with National Travel Survey data to make comparisons in modal risk across different age groups. It found that cycling is not systematically risker than walking or driving – young males were five times more at risk when driving than cycling. It should also be remembered that there are high numbers of casualties killed or seriously injured in crashes involving young car drivers – young drivers kill other people; cyclists and pedestrians very rarely injure anyone else. The promotion of cycling amongst young men is safer for them and safer for other people on the road.

Technical innovations for both cyclists and motorised vehicles were discussed. Professor Arend Schwab from Delft University has built a bicycle with active lateral stability control that steers into a fall, using sensors and steering actuators. The ‘steer-assist’ improves stability at low speed and reduces the steer effect at low speed, reducing the likelihood of falls. This was followed by an examination by VRUITS of the Intelligent Transport Systems that have the highest potential to improve 13 cycling scenarios identified in a European database of 2 million cycle crashes. These included crossing adaptive lighting; pre-green phase of traffic lights for cycles; blind spot detection systems for cars and trucks; cycle brake lights and indicators; and Intelligent Speed Adaptation for motor vehicles. Day one of the conference actually finished at the TNO test facility where they demonstrated an emergency braking system for cars that is activated when a cycle crosses its path.

Another session looked at interactions with others and infrastructure. A Norwegian study examined whether or not there really was safety in numbers for cyclists. The theory suggests that with more cyclists on the roads, the risks should eventually decrease because a) car drivers become more attentive; b) the quality of interplay improves (and reduces the ‘Two Tribes’ mentality); there is a population effect where ‘normal’ cyclists are on the roads (areas of very low cycling rates tend to have different types of cyclist, such as “maniac off-roaders”); and d) there is better infrastructure in areas with high cycling rates. The study found that at times of the year when there were fewer cyclists on the road, the riders reported not being seen by car drivers more often and that car drivers were not yielding at junctions as frequently. More research is ongoing with Danish and Swedish colleagues but initial results suggest that more riders on the road positively affects the way drivers respond to them.

With infrastructure, a variety of approaches were taken to make sure they are as appropriate for cyclists as possible. A Swedish study looked at single bicycle crashes and found that maintenance of cycle lanes featured highly – permanent objects, installed to prevent cars using the lanes, were often placed in the middle of cycle lanes and were the same colour as the track so couldn’t be seen (I’m sure we’ve all seen similar examples over here) and maintenance of the lanes was not always as good as it should be. The data meant the authorities could focus resources on the cycle facilities that need it the most and maintenance patrols are now out clearing glass and removing objects like branches. A separate presentation looked at scenarios when an innovation designed to assist cyclists, such as being able to right turn on red (RTOR – obviously left turn in the UK) has unintended consequences. A Belgium study found that where RTOR was permitted at certain locations and in certain situations, there was a spill-over effect where riders turned right on red at other locations (where it is not permitted, presumably because the authorities don’t think that manoeuvre is appropriate) and therefore increased risky behaviour.

No cycling conference could take place without a discussion on helmet wearing. Depending on the country, European helmet wearing rates range from 1 to 40% of cyclists. One Swedish study looked at the reasons for low helmet wearing and focused on the fact that riders complained of being too warm. To address this, 20 students are currently designing individual solutions and testing the thermal properties of their new helmet designs. The designs will be unveiled at the 6th European Conference on Protective Clothing in Belgium in May 2014. An alternative solution to addressing reasons why riders don’t wear helmets was provided by Terese Alstin of Hovding who have developed an airbag for cyclists. As an example of technical innovation, the ‘invisible helmet’ is truly inspiring. After questioning cyclists about why they don’t wear a helmet, Terese and a colleague worked with the airbag industry to design a collar that activates in a crash to provide head and neck protection. The inventers claim that it is safer than traditional helmets because of better shock absorbance; its larger protection area; it withstands multiple impacts in one crash; and stabilises the head and neck. One of Sweden’s largest insurance companies tested it alongside traditional helmets and discovered that it can withstand much higher G-Forces than normal helmets. It is much more expensive than traditional helmets, though, at €399.

Another focus of the conference was elderly riders. Because of the cycling culture in continental Europe, there have been recent increases in the number of older cycle casualties. These are people who have always ridden and want to remain mobile but are facing challenges such as sight, hearing and mobility problems. A Dutch project is consulting with older cyclists about the issues they face in terms of falling off the bike; braking problems; having conflicts with other riders/pedestrians; and how they are more likely to violate traffic rules because they are trying to make their journey as easy as possible. The ongoing research aims to develop a system for older cyclists that will be able to assist them in a number of scenarios and warn them of various dangers.

The last session looked at using ‘naturalistic’ data to get a better insight into cycle safety. This involves using live recording systems (GPS, video and sensors) on both cycles and motor vehicles in real life situations to understand collision causations and investigate driver and rider behaviour. There are projects in Sweden, the Netherlands and Japan using recording equipment to understand a range of topics, including how people ride electric bikes differently to traditional bikes; in order to teach taxi drivers in Japan how to anticipate cyclists’ behaviour and adapt their own; and what the issues are on cycle lanes across the Netherlands.

As you can imagine, my mind was buzzing after two days of such presentations and also the discussions in the breaks with people passionate about cycle safety. The conference provided a lot of food for thought. Even in the Netherlands, with its strong cycling culture and dedicated infrastructure, there have been recent increases in cycling casualty rates. They are meeting the problem head-on, though, with many research projects commissioned to get a true understanding of the issues and a variety of attempts to provide innovative solutions to the problems. Elsewhere in mainland Europe, the same passion and dedication are uncovering ground breaking findings and leading to the introduction of exciting new products in the cycle safety market. Maybe we are approaching the cycle safety issue in a similar way in the UK and we’re just not aware of the projects but I left with the feeling that we don’t seem to be giving the subject the same level of attention as elsewhere.

A conclusion from the presentation is that it isn’t practical or desirable for all other countries to “go Dutch” and replicate their approach. Cultural, behavioural and infrastructural differences mean that their ethos has to be adapted to suit each nation’s needs. However, the greatest lesson I learned is that the UK needs to be doing more to research the issues behind the increases in cycling casualties and to be inventive in looking at appropriate solutions.  I just hope that by next year’s International Cycle Safety Conference in Sweden we in the UK have made some serious moves forward. It’s time to learn from others and start to think outside of the box.