02 April 2009

You're Safer Than Ever in Danish Traffic

Copenhagen Cyclists
I was sent a link to a paper from the Technical University of Denmark's Dept of Transport. The paper was published in November 2008 and I was surprised I didn't see it. I was less surprised to realise that this paper was not covered in the press here in Denmark.

The media, egged on by various organisations, has revelled in an orgy of violence over the past year. The main headlines on the news have been a constant stream of horror and destruction. It isn't suprising that a headline like this - Safety in Traffic Continues to Improve - doesn't fit in well with the bloodthirsty angle the Danish media has promoted of late.

The paper from DTU Transport [available here in Danish as a pdf]shows that the risk rate in traffic fell between 2000-2007 for all users except for scooter riders. And this fall is a continuation of the fall measured between 1992-1999.

Improving risk rates for cyclists between the ages of 16-74 between 2000-2007.

Good news. Great news. Did it get into the headlines so citizens could be reassured? Nope. Positive messages don't sell, apparently.

What an irritating paper if you're one of the organisations who aim to market helmets, too. Since the 1960's there has been a constant, reassuring improvement in cycling safety and, as the paper suggests, it continues to get getter. Getting this message out will encourage more people to cycle. Period.

I've spoken to the parents of my son's classmates and many of them express an opinion that cycling has gotten more dangerous since they were children. One woman even asked if any other parents 'dared' ride with their kids to school.

That question amazed me. We almost all live within walking distance of the school and she hesitates to cycle with her kid. And demographically speaking, these are all highly-educated people with good jobs.

All of these parents are, as a rule, quite stunned to hear me tell them that it has never been safer to cycle in Denmark. That the chances of getting in an accident are vastly slimmer than when we were young. Especially with a fantastic network of bike lanes that take you anywhere you want to go.

They are amazed to hear this simple fact because of a negative tendency in Denmark to focus on the danger, even when there isn't any. The organisations that promote this fear-mongering are picking away at our bicycle culture. They are succeeding to a great degree when you hear parents express such fears.

Who is there in Denmark to promote cycling as something positive? Something healthy, safe and good for society? Where are these organisations? Do we have to get the Dutch Fietsersbond or the British CTC or the German/French/Belgian cyclists orgs to set up offices here and do the work for us?

As mentioned previously, we had a similar period of fearmongering back in the early 1990's and the result was that parents stopped cycling with their kids to school, driving them instead. We bucked the trend here in Copenhagen, but now we're starting all over again.

We need focus on how safe cycling is, how healthy it is and we need to reinstate a sense of pride among the citizens of this country about how we are a world-leader with regards to cycling.

Addendum: I posted back in February about how the Bicycle is Booming - Just Not in Denmark. I mentioned that the bicycle retailers' organisation estimated that bike sales would be down 5% for 2007. The number ended up being 7% down. Thanks, Road Safety Council! Have a nice drive to work!


Karl McCracken (twitter: @karlonsea) said...

Very interesting - especially the stuff about parents' attitudes and their surprise at the actual rather than made-up statistics.

btw - could you translate the details for the graph - when I put it in to an on-line translator, it turned this Danish:

"Udvikling i egenrisiko for 16-74-arige cyklister efter køn (draebte og alvorligt skadede per 10 mio. km)"

into this English:

"Development of own risk for 16-74-yearly cyclists after sex (killed and seriously injured 10 per million. Km)"

There are certain assumptions about Danish culture in the UK, and while that translation may be correct, it looks like the translation software is pandering to stereotypes to me! Or perhaps it's related to your post from January?

Adrienne Johnson said...

I just wrote about this climate of fear. It comes down to this-


kiwehtin said...

Nice to see this. I would really be interested in seeing something like this for a North American context. It's true though that John Pucher's studies show that Danish, Dutch and some German cities' safety statistics are much better than what we see in North America, something he connects with greater attention being paid to cyclist-friendly infrastructure.

Karl - apart from what you auto-translated, I believe the darker, higher line shows rates for men and the lighter, lower one shows those for women.

kiwehtin said...

I took a look at the PDF linked to from their site and one thing that bothers me is the way they compare injury and death rates for different modes - walking, cycling, mopeds/motor-scooters, cars, buses, freight trucks etc. - by distance travelled (i.e. for 10 million kilometres travelled). This inevitably gives a misleading impression that pedestrian and cycling casualty rates are higher in comparison to automobile traffic rates than they really are. Since walking and cycling are short-distance modes and automobile travel for longer distances (perhaps less so in more automobile-addicted societies like North America), a more accurate measure would be casualty rates by travel time.

melancholic optimist said...

Serendipitously, this was just posted about on Bike Portland today - our rate of people riding bicycles has gone up 115% since the year 2000, and the number of crashes has only risen by 10-15%. 2008 makes 5 out of the last 10 years that there have been no bicycle-related deaths in Portland city limits, and we had the fewest traffic-related deaths in all modes ever recorded in Portland in 2008, and that number has generally been on a steady decline since the late 1930's (with a few big jumps up in the mid 1970's and mid 1980's).

The streets are safe and getting safer, yet the 66% of children who walked and biked to school in 1970 has now been reduced to 8%, and according to surveys, 50-60% of Portland residents limit their usage of bicycles because of safety concerns.

Adrienne Johnson said...

Yellow plaid lady has been here before-


I bet the guy with the Nihola is with her.

Cargo Cult said...

Excellent post. I'm forever fighting my own battles with local councils and cycling organisations, firing off letters asking why these people are so keen on repeating the 'cycling is dangerous' mantra when, at the same time, they are actively trying to promote it as a healthier and enviromentally friendly alternative. It absolutely stuns me that such a wonderful cycling city as Copenhagen has to endure these merchants of doom as well.

Mikael said...

@karl: post-coital risk is very high in denmark...

@adrienne: where did you write about it?

@kihwetin: you're right. risk per kilometre is quite lame. it's a very car-centric way to look at things. risk per km would make space travel the safest from of travel.

@mel.optimist: fear is easier to sell than fact.

@adrienne: different girl, different jacket. trust me, i'm a trained professional... :-)

@cargo cult: it is, indeed, shocking, this development here in denmark.

Adrienne Johnson said...

@Mikael- http://wereonaroadtosomewhere.blogspot.com/2009/03/just-like-riding-bike.html

can't say it is good writing, but it is mine.

Adrienne Johnson said...

Not sure why that link didn't work... if you click on my profile my blog is linked. The post is 'Just Like Riding A Bike' March 31, 2009

mikey2gorgeous said...

My local (Bournemouth, UK) newspaper recently had a front page headline of "I saw my son riding without a helmet so I took him to see the head injury ward in the hospital". My attempts to comment on this attitude were met with stern reprimands from local ambulance people & nurses and the sort of anecdotal rubbish that GPs spout.
I do fear for cycling in this country.

Son of Shaft said...

In the Netherlands the avarage age that children are allowed by their parents to cycle on their own has gone up from 6(1970) to 8 (1993) to 9 (2001). I think the figure of 2007 or 2008 is 9-10years old. Reason for this is that parents find that traffic has become less save due to the increase of cars on the road. But the figures show that traffic for kids is at its safest in 14/15 years. Read this a couple of months ago in either "vogelvrije fietser" a ANWB magazine or "Verkeerskunde" a traffic managment magazine.
What I also read is that children in cities are better in judging traffic situations than children form the countryside. Mainly because of more interaction with other traffic and therefore getting more situations/exercise to learn from.

On occasion different traffic related organisations have opinion polls about cycle helmet laws. Usually it results in a fair amount of people that support it for kids in primary school with the odd one wanting it for everyone till they are 18. But most people find it that it's up to the parents and that time and money spent on enforcing such a law can be better spent.

Nate Briggs said...

Some of the problem relates to media, itself, which almost invariably expresses automobile fatalities in a passive voice (see Tom Vanderbilt's blog HOWWEDRIVE.COM) ... as though they are just a natural part of life and there is nothing to be done.

Bicycle accidents are presented as unique, and noticeable, events - with the subtext "This is what happens when you indulge in crazy behavior...."

In the US, where it can be argued that cars are now THE central icon for the culture, this mood is even more pronounced. Cars MUST be safe ... because we can't live without them. Bicycling - which is anticultural - must be dangerous.

Nate (canniballife@hotmail.com)

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