Is the fear of riding a bicycle in Australia valid?

Journal of the Australasian College of Road Safety

Fishman, Washington & Haworth (2012) look at the topic “fear of riding a bicycle” which they say is the most common reason stated for not riding a bicycle. Interestingly the Cycling and Women Survey found, that speed/volume of traffic, whilst a concern to women was only on the minds of 8.2% of the respondents as a reason not to ride. So is this belief, this fear a valid one? Lets take a look at what the authors found.

The Abstract

First the abstract from the paper with my links.

Rates of bicycle commuting currently hover around 1 – 2% in most Australian capital cities, although 17.8% of Australians report riding at least once per week. The most commonly stated reason for choosing not to ride a bicycle is fear of motorised vehicles. This paper sets out to examine the literature and offer a commentary regarding the role fear plays as a barrier to bicycle riding. The paper also provides an estimate of the relative risk of driving and riding, on a per trip basis. An analysis of the existing literature finds fear of motorised traffic to be disproportionate to actual levels of risk to bicycle riders. Moreover, the health benefits of bicycling outweigh the risks of collision. Rather than actual collisions forming the basis of people’s fear, it appears plausible that near collisions (which occur far more frequently) may be a significant cause for the exaggerated levels of fear associated with bicycle riding. In order to achieve the Australian Government’s goal of doubling bike riding participation, this review suggests it will be necessary to counter fear through the creation of a low risk traffic environment (both perceived and real), involving marketing/promotional campaigns and the development of a comprehensive bicycle infrastructure network and lower speed limits.

From the paper there is evidence that we have a perception of risk, not necessarily borne out by reality, but that perception is strong and is reinforced not necessarily been hit but by the behaviour of motorists and attitudes shown by motorists towards cyclists.

In my experience on the road this is so often demonstrated in close passes, tailgating, cutting me off, yelling at abuse at me, the “sorry mate I didn’t see you” (SMIDY) syndrome and the “must get in front” (MGIF) attitude. Is there prizes for being first at the red light? Thankfully none of this has translated in a serious crash or injury for me yet but without a doubt it has frightened me at times and it has made me re-think some of my riding. There is only some much anger one can tolerate.

This anger towards cyclists, often called “hatred” can also been seen in social media such as Twitter (search on “cyclists” and see what comes up over a day or so) and in the likes of the some newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph and then there are blog postings by “celebrities”, now becoming known as “click-bait” which are posted to generate a response for the website irrespective of how it maybe played out on the roads and often lacking anything resembling an intelligence analysis.

Back to the paper. The authors focus on three aspects considered to contributors to this perception of risk:

  • volume, speed and type of traffic
  • number of parked vehicles on the side of the road (car-door opening risk)
  • type of intersections

and recommend the following …

  • Separated bicycle lanes – “On major arterial roads (at least two general traffic lanes in each direction), which often have the most suitable gradient for bicycling, separated bicycle infrastructure has been shown to increase actual and perceived levels of safety.”
  • Bicycle lanes – On minor arterial roads, bicycle lanes are required to form a coherent, integrated network.
  • Awareness campaigns. “Raising awareness of the increased presence of bicycle riders on roads may assist in reducing the ‘looked but did not see’ collisions and near collisions that typically occur when motorists do not expect bicyclists to be on the road.”
  • Speed limit reductions – “By reducing the general speed limit in cities to 30 km/h, consistent with many European countries, the perceived and actual risk of collision, near collision and severity of injury for actual collisions will be reduced.”

In conclusion the authors’ comment …

In order to significantly increase rates of bicycling, safety must be prioritised; at the same time, fear and common perceptions of road traffic crash likelihood that prevent people from cycling will need to be addressed. To adequately address community concerns, the road traffic environment will need to be made to feel safe.

This can be achieved through measures such as the targeted reallocation of road space and the lowering of speed limits, along with awareness and education campaigns. Current evidence suggests that these measures will help to provide a road environment that is safer – and, importantly, one that is perceived to be safer – for bicycle riders.

Without a doubt this paper has some serious food for thought but I would suggest that we must start putting people first, motor vehicles second. Until we start thinking like that, not much is going to change.

The paper can be download from my Dropbox. The full reference for the paper is:

Fishman, E., Washington, S. & Haworth, N. (2012). Understanding the fear of bicycle riding in Australia. Journal of the Australasian College of Road Safety, 23(3), 19-27.

9 Responses to Is the fear of riding a bicycle in Australia valid?

  1. James 21 October 2013 at 5:22 AM #

    I’m glad there was balance and thought given to our irrational fears.

    Though separated facilities are necessary for young children who are not traffic aware, and adults who lack confidence and competence riding a bicycle to participate, something that is missing in this country that would change peoples perceptions and improve overall safety from the ground up is bicycling and road use education in schools – like the Dutch have been doing for decades already. Kids are educated how to ride (and drive) properly, and ride a route on city streets with cars and on paths, and obtain a cycling proficiency certificate.

    People often blame lack of infrastructure here as the reason for low participation, but clearly our cities are well past having masses of infrastructure installed, however by improving peoples road use culture and teaching them to ride (and drive) properly, we could have a significant effect on percieved and actual safety.

    • Andrew Priest 21 October 2013 at 5:56 PM #

      Thanks James for adding your thoughts to the discussion. We need more discussion for sure (and action of course).

    • Chris Cox 2 November 2013 at 2:33 PM #

      There’s still plenty of scope for infrastructure – if we have the political will. We’ve seen examples in Melbourne where motor vehicle lanes are being removed in favor of Copenhagen lanes. This is ideal.

      Bicycles should not be expected to share lanes with motor traffic at or above 50kph.

      It’s simply not safe, no matter how competent and confident the rider and drivers.

      • James 24 January 2014 at 8:51 AM #

        Ah, yes, the Copenhagen lanes of Melbourne. People *feel* safe using them. I get that. But I believe the safety is percieved and not actual. At the end of ever section of Copenhagen lane there is a distance where bicyclists pop out from behind parked cars and have to mingle with motor traffic, some of which will want to turn left at the cross road. The result is a heightened probablility of a collision, and is why even the Melbourne BUG is currently battling to have a yet to be implemented Copenhagen lane design changed.

        But that’s not all, the few times I’ve used the Copenhagen lanes I’ve encountered, I’ve had near misses with pedestrians, and there’s unlikely to be room to pass a slow poke wobbly rider – but there would be on the road.

        Then we have the “must use facilites” laws, that practically make it a traffic offence to not use a Copenhagen lane where one is provided. These laws should be abolished before our right to ride on the road is gone for good!

        I always find a route that does not include a Copenhagen bike lane through Melbourne. I like Russell St., because it has no such facilites and leads me straight to the coffee on Lygon 😉

  2. Sue Chapple 5 November 2013 at 6:52 AM #

    Having just returned from 6 weeks cycling in France and Spain, and having cycled more than 10,000 kms in Europe, I believe it is the culture that needs to change in Australia. This year we were told that in France it is better to kill your mother-in-law than to hit a cyclist with your car. That is the difference. Cyclists are respected as human beings.
    The current submission to the Qld Government on cycling includes some extraordinary evidence and examples of the types of comments and behaviours by drivers that make us feel unsafe. For example: ‘I like to think of the cyclists a bowling pins and my car the bowling ball’. How atrocious. These types of comments make me ashamed to be an Australian. Since when has it become acceptable to kill someone and there be no consequence? I’m amazed that we’ve allowed it to get to this point.

    • Andrew Priest 6 November 2013 at 5:10 PM #

      How lucky Sue … riding in Europe for six weeks … jealous 🙂

      I think you are right but, there is a real need for a cultural change, but not just here. In NZ, in the UK and going by press reports of late, India as well, and no doubt other countries. Sad really, that seem to be loosing our moral compass, our sense of responsibility, of valuing human life.

    • James 24 January 2014 at 8:56 AM #

      You and I think alike, Sue. Great comment. My brother and his family take cycling tour groups to Italy, and say the same things. Italy doesn’t have facilities, at least not where they stay, and the drivers wait patiently on narrow roads, pass with great care and are not affraid to cross the centre line to provide adequate space.

      Contrast that with the bullies and butt-heads we cope with here, and it’s obivous why people feel unsafe.

  3. Sandman 23 January 2014 at 1:34 PM #

    I’ve read that in some states of the U.S. if a vehicle driver hits a person (either pedestrian or cyclist) with their vehicle it is treated as a criminal offense and taken through court as such, brilliant. Why this isn’t applied world-wide is beyond me. After dealings with some of the dumb mutts behind the wheel of vehicles around here (Perth, Western Australia), this should be mandatory!
    Some of these morons around here treat road usage as a game, I sincerely hope they don’t breed.

    • Andrew 23 January 2014 at 8:51 PM #

      As I understand we also have criminal sanctions … I think this is where the Road Traffic Act comes into play over the Road Traffic Regulations.

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