Smart cycling

August 19th, 2009

What do drivers and cyclists need to know to share the road safely?

Dr. Chris Cavacuiti of the department of family and community medicine is a staff physician at St. Michael’s Hospital and an experienced cyclist who commutes on his bicycle and races competitively. He was recovering from a serious cycling accident when he began his research on cycling health and safety.

You were recovering from a cycling accident when you began your research—tell us about this.

In 2006 I was hit by a truck while training for an Ironman race. The collision left me with fractured ribs, a broken collarbone, and a shattered shoulder blade. The driver was charged and convicted for making an unsafe turn. As a physician interested in research, I used my recovery time to review the current research on cycling health and safety. I quickly came to realize that there is powerful evidence that with the proper investment in cycling infrastructure, accidents like mine would happen far less often.

Who causes accidents—cyclists or drivers?

While there is a public perception that cyclists are usually the cause of accidents between cars and bikes, an analysis of Toronto police collision reports shows otherwise: The most common type of crash in this study involved a motorist entering an intersection and either failing to stop properly or proceeding before it was safe to do so. The second most common crash type involved a motorist overtaking unsafely. The third involved a motorist opening a door onto an oncoming cyclist. The study concluded that cyclists are the cause of less than 10 per cent of bike-car accidents in this study.

The available evidence suggests that collisions have far more to do with aggressive driving than aggressive cycling.

So what can we do to reduce bike-car accidents?

There is a wide variety of effective strategies that can reduce motorist/cyclist collisions. Many European countries have far lower rates of cycling fatalities than we do in Canada, despite having roads that are narrower and more crowded than ours. They have managed this through a combination of rigorous driver education and training as well as strong law enforcement policies that place the burden of responsibility with driver—not cyclists—when it comes to collisions. The Europeans have also done a far better job investing in cycling infrastructure to keep cyclists safe.

What do you mean by improving cycling infrastructure?

Cycling health and safety isn’t just a matter of saying ‘let’s be safe’ and ‘let’s share the road’—but recognizing that more and better infrastructure investment is essential in keeping cyclists safe. By infrastructure, I mean things like shared or designated roadways and paths, traffic calming measures, increased public education, provision of safe storage facilities and other equipment that makes cycling a safe, convenient travel choice.

Research shows, perhaps not surprisingly, that countries and communities with more investment in cycling infrastructure have higher levels of cycling and lower accident and fatality rates among vulnerable road users—cyclists and pedestrians.

Is this more than a cycling issue?

As a matter of public health, there are many recognized benefits to society as a whole for investment in cycling infrastructure. In fact, the benefits of cycling are estimated to outweigh the risks by as much as 20 to one. Cycling has the potential to be an extremely effective health promotion tool, and it’s unfortunate that it’s not yet part of the public health agenda.

When decisions are made to not to invest in the type of infrastructure that promotes healthy active lifestyles, everyone tends to suffer, especially those with lower socio-economic status, who may not have the extra resources to join a gym, for example, or live where walking or cycling can easily be a part of their daily life.

Those countries that are more committed to active lifestyles via infrastructure tend to have lower rates of childhood obesity. I must add that the studies are not necessarily causal, but there are links.

There is also solid evidence that pollution isn’t just something that makes people cough a little bit. Toronto Public Health estimates some 70,000 days lost from pollution in terms of productivity and functionality with a corresponding dollar value. Pollution also accounts for 200,000 “restricted activity days” per year, including 68,000 asthma days.

What about the bike helmet question?

I wear a helmet while riding. But to be perfectly honest, I wonder how much it actually contributes to my safety. There is a perception that if you’re not wearing a helmet, you’re to blame for your accident—that you don’t take your own personal safety very seriously. The fact is that countries that are the safest in the world for cycling have the lowest rates of helmet use. In the Netherlands, less than one per cent of cyclists wear helmets and cycling is not perceived to be a high-risk activity.

I think the helmet debate takes away from what we could be doing—it’s a distraction with an easy legislative solution. It doesn’t solve the problem of safety while cycling. It might almost be better if wearing a helmet was mandated and then work could move forward with the issues that really matter, like improved infrastructure for safe cycling.

Do you have some tips for new cyclists?

  1. Know and follow the rules of the road. Always.
  2. Consider taking a course to learn how to share the road as safely as possible with other vehicles. CAN-BIKE courses are offered through the City of Toronto.
  3. Find a balance between being a careful rider and being confident enough to claim adequate space on the road within lanes of traffic and around parked cars.
  4. Remember that motorists will not necessarily understand what the needs of a cyclist are—so educate yourself. There’s a difference between being assertive and aggressive. Self-preservation should be your primary motivation.
  5. If you’re planning to become a regular cycling commuter, there will inevitably be times when you may need to ride in the dark or in the rain, so invest in some lights and some reflective clothing and also buy yourself some good quality rain gear. I ride my bike almost all year round and what I’ve come to realize is that there’s really no such thing as bad weather; there are only bad clothing choices!

CORRECTION–August 26, 2009: 

Dr. Chris Cavacuiti has informed us that his interview contains a factual error.

In the interview, Dr. Cavacuiti is quoted as saying “The [Toronto Collision] study concluded that cyclists are the cause of less than 10 per cent of bike-car accidents”. Dr. Cavacuiti has asked us to make readers aware that the Toronto Collision study was actually designed to look at the cause of bicycle/motorist collisions but not culpability.

It is actually several studies conducted by the Charles Komanoff and member of the Right of Way organization in New York that concluded that concluded that cyclists were strictly culpable for less than 10 per cent of bike-car accidents.

Dr. Cavacuiti would like to apologize for any confusion this error may have caused.