‘Safety in numbers’: reducing the risks for cyclists

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There’s a theory in cycling safety circles that the more people riding bikes, the safer cycling becomes for everyone. And while research has shown the concept to work in cyclo-utopias like Denmark and the Netherlands, there’s been nothing to show that the same is true here in Australia. But now, a research paper from Monash University researcher (and Amy Gillett Foundation research and policy manager) Dr Marilyn Johnson suggests the idea of “safety in numbers” is applicable in Australia too. CyclingTips editor Matt de Neef spoke with Dr Johnson to learn more about her research and about current efforts to improve cycling safety.

The theory and the study

If you started cycling after you started driving you might have noticed a change in the way you drive around cyclists. You might be willing to give cyclists more space and greater respect than you once did, given you know what it’s like to be in their shoes.

This is a key aspect of the ‘safety in numbers’ theory; the idea that as the number of cyclists on our roads increases, so too does the number of “cyclist-drivers” — people who are likely to give greater care to cyclists given their riding experience.

The theory comes from a 2003 paper by US researcher Peter Lyndon Jacobsen, who considered data from the US, UK, and mainland Europe to “examine the relationship between the numbers of people walking or bicycling and the frequency of collisions between motorists and walkers or bicyclists”. Jacobsen found, to quote from his paper, that “a motorist is less likely to collide with a person walking and bicycling if more people walk or bicycle.”

Jacobson didn’t consider Australia as part of his study, which gave Dr Marilyn Johnson the opportunity to do so.

As part of an online survey conducted during her PhD a few years ago, Dr Johnson asked drivers and cyclist-drivers to self-report their behaviour, attitudes and knowledge when it came to cycling. She found, among other things, that “cyclist-drivers were 1.5 times more likely than drivers to report safe driving behaviours related to sharing the roads with cyclists”. In this case, “safe behaviours” refers to: indicating for at least five seconds before turning; doing a head-check before turning left, and; providing at least one metre of room when overtaking a cyclist.

The findings, published in the Journal of Accident Analysis and Prevention, showed that Jacobson’s theory also holds true in Australia, where cities are considerably larger and with greater sprawl than in Europe.

Garry Brennan, General Manager of government & external relations at cycling advocacy group Bicycle Network, told CyclingTips that the findings of Dr Johnson’s paper are consistent with what’s been observed in Melbourne in recent years.

“We started counting [rider numbers] on streets in Melbourne maybe 15 years ago, and on some of those streets we’ve matched the crash rate with the numbers of riders”, Mr Brennan said. “That shows that where we’ve got a five-fold increase in rider numbers, the crash rate only doubles.”

While the increased number of cyclist-drivers is assumed to be one reason for greater rider safety, Dr Johnson told CyclingTips there are others.

“The more people that ride [the] more likely [drivers are] to expect them on the road”, Dr Johnson said. “Drivers become more comfortable interacting with cyclists on the road.”

Garry Brennan agrees:

“My view is that it’s a forced adaptation. It’s just the sheer numbers and so where drivers once never expected to see a bike, they now unconsciously are looking out,” he said.

Getting people riding

So if all cyclists benefit from getting more people riding (and that’s not to mention the societal benefits of increased cycling participation) it would seem to make sense to get as many people riding as possible. But how do we do that? And what are the barriers preventing people from cycling at the moment?

“Sometimes it’s as simple as ‘I know someone who rides and they’ll come with so I can gain some confidence’ — that’s all it takes for some people”, Dr Marilyn Johnson told CyclingTips. “For other people they need a clearly defined and connected path from where they’re going to where they need to get. And it varies really widely depending on people’s confidence, their perception of safety, their understanding of the roads and just how congested it is sometimes.”

A recent Cycling Australia report on cycling participation levels among women supports Dr Johnson’s view, with “feeling unsafe on the road” identified as the biggest obstacle for many would-be riders. And that’s not surprising when incidents like the Eastlakes crash in Sydney early this year, or Craig Cowled’s horrendous crash from 2013 are seemingly regular occurrences. And that’s not to mention the fatalities.

For Garry Brennan and Bicycle Network, one of the key strategies for increasing cycling participation is cycling infrastructure.

“Every time we put infrastructure on the road we get more people [cycling]”, Mr Brennan said. “Infrastructure drives this cycle — if you put in infrastructure you get more riders and you get a wider cross-section of riders because infrastructure delivers us the people that are not currently riding bikes.”

According to Mr Brennan, new road infrastructure is effective because it forces a change of behaviour from motorists.

“There are many aspects of roads and infrastructure that change driver behaviour, and one of those is bike infrastructure — various kinds of bike lanes, storage boxes, green paint treatments and so on.

“All of those infrastructure treatments have an effect on driver behaviour, and those effects become embedded in driver behaviour over time so that even if there happens to be a moment where there were no bikes on that street, they are still reacting to the presence of the infrastructure. So they might be driving a little slower, or closer to the centre line of the road.”

Educating non-cyclists

In the quest to improve cyclist safety, it’s one thing to provide those that want to cycle with a safer environment, via new infrastructure for example. It’s another thing entirely to get people that have never cycled and have no interested in cycling to show care and compassion around cyclists.

Of course there are a number of campaigns and public messages out there with exactly that aim, VicRoads’ Share the Road for one. More famously, the Amy Gillett Foundation’s A Metre Matters campaign has been gaining traction in recent years, with a trial of a minimum passing distance law currently in place in Queensland.

As Dr Marilyn Johnson told CyclingTips, the Amy Gillett Foundation has another campaign it’s been working on with the NSW government, entitled “It’s a two-way street”. The campaign seeks to foster mutual respect between cyclists and motorists with such messages being shared on billboards and in print campaigns, as well as on radio.

“In the past there’s been a tendency to blame one group and say ‘it’s your fault and you need to do this’ – at the Foundation that’s really not the approach we’ve been taking. The responsibility lies with both road-user groups”, Dr Johnson said.

“Cyclists have to obey all the road rules, they have to stop at red lights, they have to wear lights at night – there are things you really have to do to be responsible as a bike rider. There’s also obviously things drivers need to do – they need to give sufficient distance when they’re overtaking, they need to indicate their intention early, they need to headcheck, they need to not swing their door open, particularly in the path of cyclists …

“There’s a whole lot of things they both [cyclists and drivers] need to do and I think that shift in saying ‘everyone needs to take responsibility for their own actions’ … contributes to a much better environment.”

Bicycle Network’s Garry Brennan isn’t convinced that education campaigns for existing drivers are the way to go.

“The research into education and those sorts of attitudinal change programs shows that they’re not highly effective unless they’re part of the initial driver training”, he said.

“In the learnings phase, when people are learning to ride a bike or drive a car, those sorts of communications are tremendously important. It’s unfortunate that we’ve not been able to get the licensing authorities to more seriously regard this issue.”

Instead, Mr Brennan says, it’s more important to spend time fostering social empathy among those who don’t cycle.

“What drivers should realise is that the people on the bike could be a schoolteacher of their children, a friend at work, the guy over the back fence.”

For Mr Brennan, it’s all about normalising cycling.

“The reason that [some motorists] do show aggression on the road towards cyclists is because they think we’re a different species. They’ve framed us as an edge group so we’re not worthy of respect”, Mr Brennan said.

“We need more women, more school kids, more elderly people — we need a full cross-section of society on our streets riding bikes, not just superfit roadies or super-brave commuters,” Mr Brennan said.

“That’s what’s going to deliver us the huge benefits in safety because bike riding will be normalised; it will be socially acceptable, social empathy will be driving a much greater understanding and respect for people on bikes and that will be a net gain for everybody.”

Limitations of the study

While Dr Johnson’s study came to satisfying conclusion — showing that the ‘safety in numbers’ theory appears to hold true in Australia — the researcher acknowledges the paper has its limitations. That’s particularly the case when it comes to the self-reporting of behaviours such as head-checks or indicating for more than five seconds.

“The sort of behaviours we’re looking at at this point — some of that stuff’s so subconscious that unless you’re asked in detail to break down what you do, some people don’t even realise they’re doing some of this stuff. Some people might [also] report a higher level [of good behaviour] because they want to say they’re doing the right thing.”

One way to confirm the study’s findings would be to undertake something similar to the 100-Car Naturalistic Driving Study completed in the US a few years ago. In that study 100 cars were fitted out with several video cameras and a range of sensors and the drivers were given no special instructions and no researcher was present. The drivers were free to drive as they normally would, with their behaviour monitored and later analysed.

A similar approach could be taken to document how drivers behave around cyclists, but it would appear such a study is still some way off.

“That would basically mean putting cameras in cars and [so far] we just haven’t had the resources to do that,” Dr Johnson said. “The technology is there to enable it to happen, but it hasn’t happened for cycling research yet.”

Cycling safety is generally regarded as an under-researched area and as our cities continue to grow and change, plenty more research will need to be done to learn where cycling best fits and how to keep its participants safe. But what seems clear is that the more people we have cycling, the better off we all are, including us cyclists.

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