Cycling advocates maintain much of the recent commentary on bicycling behaviour falls into the category of "dangerising" cycling – that is, misjudging how "dangerous" the activity is and failing to recognise the real sources of danger. The Irish Times reports the rise in cycle fatalities between 2013 (five) and 2014 (12). While campaigners are undoubtedly saddened by this increase, we need to take a longer term perspective to understand trends.
Throughout the 1990s, an average of 28 cyclists lost their lives on Irish roads annually (with 46 lost in 1990 alone); for the period 2000-2010, the average was just over 12, and it has been in single digits for all but one of the past five years. Therefore, fatality numbers are declining quite steadily and, crucially, the decline occurs in the context of rising numbers of (adult) cyclists on the roads in recent years, particularly in Dublin. Further commentary has focused on cyclists themselves and, in some cases, on the wearing of personal protective equipment such as hi-vis jackets.
Cycling advocates certainly acknowledge the need to cycle lawfully and respectfully, particularly in the vicinity of pedestrians. However, the weight of policing and traffic management efforts to make cycling a safe and normal part of everyday life – as it is in much of Northern Europe – needs to shift substantially from seeking to control the cyclist to managing the physical hazards which generate the death and injury in the first place.
The most effective interventions involve physically removing the hazard, (such as the hazard of heavy goods vehicles from Dublin city centre) while the least effective leave the hazard untouched and concentrate on providing personal protective equipment to the more vulnerable.
Further, the hazardous nature of motor vehicles can be reduced substantially by dropping maximum permitted speeds from 50 to 30kph – a policy recommended by the Department of the Environment in the statutory Design Manual for Urban Roads and Streets. The RSA has indicated “four out of five drivers are breaking the speed limit” in urban areas.
Policing and road safety efforts must be weighted towards slowing down motorised vehicles. This is particularly pertinent given that an increasing proportion of newly registered cars are sports utility vehicles (SUVs), with greater masses, wider bodies, higher front ends and low “Euro NCAP” safety ratings (used to estimate the severity of injuries caused to pedestrians from front-end impacts). The overarching argument here is that, in law enforcement terms, too little is done to reduce the hazards posed by cars to vulnerable road users, particularly children – this includes addressing dangerous overtaking manoeuvres (passing at a distance of less than 1.5 metres).
Is it any wonder that the number of children cycling to primary school has practically fallen off a cliff in most parts of Ireland over the past 20 years – in 1991, more than 22,400 children cycled to primary school; by 2011, it was just over 6,200). Further, while the provision of cycle lanes expanded substantially over the past 20 years (with very mixed quality of designs), the problem of "fly-parking" on cycle tracks is remarkably common. However, in 2014, An Garda Síochána issued just 144 fixed charge notices to drivers for this penalty point offence. This has led to cycling advocates running the #FreeTheCycleLanes Twitter campaign to highlight the hazard.
Everyday cycling for transport is undoubtedly one of the best ways to integrate physical activity into one’s life, and the bicycle is rightly recognised as a core part of the solution to the multiple problems generated by car use – urban congestion, air quality deterioration, traffic collisions and greenhouse gas production.
Thankfully we have a progressive National Cycling Policy Framework (published in 2009) which sets out the steps we need to take to reach our 10 per cent target of trips to be taken by bike by 2020.
However, until the car is calmed and contained, just as happened in the Netherlands from the 1970s onwards in response to the "Mothers Against Child Murders on the Roads" campaigns, it is going to be extremely difficult to reach these targets.
Dr Damien Ó Tuama is National Cycling Coordinator with Cyclist.ie and An Taisce