Cycling: It's hell on two wheels

Last updated 05:00 29/12/2013
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Hundreds of cyclists are seriously injured on our roads each year. Katie Kenny investigates the risks and reviews what can be done to lower the toll.

As the days get warmer and longer, more and more Kiwis enjoy getting out on their bikes. Cycling is a relatively safe sport, social, with health and environmental benefits.

New Zealand offers spectacular on and off-road training options.

But at the back of every cyclist's mind is a version of the same question, will I make it home today?

Compared to other countries, New Zealand roads are relatively safe. Even so, an average of more than 300 cyclists require hospital treatment annually, and about 10 cyclists die as a result of crashes. Three-quarters of cycling deaths are caused by head injuries.

The main risk factors are obvious: decreased stabilisation, and a much lower level of protection than that provided by a car. In addition, cyclists are less visible to other road users.

NZ Transport Agency road safety director Ernst Zollner says there has been a recent push to improve the safety of cyclists in New Zealand. This has included investing in separated cycle paths, improving the safety of roads and roadsides, making intersections safer, reducing vehicle speeds in urban areas, and promoting safe cycling through a range of education programmes.

"Summer and the school holidays are a popular time for kids to learn how to cycle, or to hit the road and try out new bikes, and the Transport Agency is asking all drivers to remember that there are likely to be more children out having fun on bikes during summer, and to always be on the lookout for little people on bikes.

"The two most important things you can do as a driver to help avoid summer cycling tragedies are to slow down, and to keep your focus on driving - take your foot off the gas pedal and avoid distractions - turn the cellphone off and put it out of reach."

In a review of 13 specific deaths released in November this year, coroner Gordon Matenga found most cycling deaths in New Zealand were preventable.

Colliding with a motor vehicle was the highest single cause of cycling fatalities.

Following this, Glen Koorey, of the University of Canterbury, investigated common trends in all cycling fatalities in New Zealand since 2006.

His research shows cyclists older than 50 were over-represented in fatal crashes, despite their "relatively low cycling involvement", and were also more likely to be at fault.

The average age of victims was 47, compared with the average age of 33 for all cyclists. While some of this can be explained by the relative fragility of young and old people, it also possibly highlights that older cyclists are more likely to make mistakes (possibly due to diminished senses or reactions), he says.

Fatalities involving heavy vehicles and/or state highways were higher than expected, and poor observation by drivers was "very common".

The most important factor for preventing cycling fatalities is relevant education, his conclusions state. "At the kid level we don't do enough basic cycle training, but there's more of a gap at the adult level," Koorey says.

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"If you didn't get formally trained at any stage there can be some bad habits that form. Like biking too close to parked cars, not judging well when they move over, not signalling, just simple eye contact can make a difference sometimes.

"On the motoring side, [cycle safety] is not an area we've provided a lot of guidance for. There are some pretty basic rules such as giving adequate space - don't try and squeeze past someone.

"If there's no room, slow down and wait. Waiting is always an option. Make sure you always check for cyclists, especially at intersections."

Despite the focus on deaths and serious injuries, Koorey says "cycling is still a relatively safe hobby". Statistics show the average rate of cycling fatalities is one per 2 million hours of riding.

As the popularity of cycling grows, both as a competitive sport and a method of transport, it is becoming safer.

According to the International Transport Forum, the number of cyclist fatalities in New Zealand dropped by 67 per cent between 1990 and 2011.

Koorey is a member of an expert panel at NZTA which aims to improve cycling safety standards, "whether it's infrastructure, legislation, there's no single silver bullet".

"The risks could be better, but they're still rare," he says.

"You have to be pretty damn unlucky to get seriously injured."

- Sunday Star Times

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