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Velo-City: Perth » Speed critical for survival

Speed critical for survival

by Debra Mayrhofer

In a crash between a cyclist and a vehicle travelling at 50kmh, there is a 90 per cent chance the cyclist will die. Yet at 30kmh the cyclist has a 95 per cent chance of surviving, says a UK transport expert.


Reducing traffic speed is vital to making cycling safer, and thus more popular, according to John Whitelegg, Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of York in the UK.
Professor Whitelegg is also the sustainable transport adviser to the Lancaster Cycling Demonstration Town project, which is committed to doubling cycling levels over a three-year period. He recently conducted seminars in Australia on local initiatives for sustainable travel and didn’t pull his punches in outlining the priorities for safer cycling.
“From a safety point of view, the obsession with helmets is misguided,” Professor Whitelegg said. “Cycle proficiency courses, separate paths and end of trip facilities make a difference, but even they have less impact on people’s decisions to cycle than their sense of safety on the streets.”
Professor Whitelegg has worked for 25 years on transport, environmental and sustainable development issues in the UK, Denmark, Germany and Australia, as well as consulting in a number of other countries.
“Areas where speed limits of 30kmh have been introduced have shown marked increases in the number of pedestrians and cyclists,” he said.
Berlin has included cycling as a key part of its climate change plan and has 72 per cent of its city streets with a speed limit of 30kph or less. Bicycles now account for more than 12 per cent of all road traffic and the number is increasing each year.
“I can’t guarantee that Australians would accept that speed limit, but you could certainly start with a trial of 40kmh-limited areas and see how that goes.
“The relationship between speed and the consequences of road crashes has a very steep curve.
“By this I mean that in a crash between a pedestrian or a cyclist and a vehicle travelling at 50kmh, you’re looking at a 90 per cent chance of death to the cyclist or walker. Yet at 30kmh the vulnerable road user has a 95 per cent chance of surviving.
“The scientific evidence clearly shows that 30kmh is the tipping point, yet governments all over the world put a lot of effort into protecting motorists, but very little into protecting the vulnerable road users.”
Professor Whitelegg found in his research with motorists that, in the UK at least, 80 per cent of them are generally prepared to support lower speed limits when they see the impact that the higher speeds have on the number of fatalities, especially child deaths.
“Motorists are on the whole reasonable people, especially when presented with the information about the impact of higher speeds,” he said. “The objections are trivial in the face of the consequences.”
For example, people often complain about the extra time a slower journey would take, but for a car journey of six to eight kilometres, the difference between driving at 30kmh and 50kmh is only a few minutes.

Lancaster Cycling Demonstration Town - where bikes are a natural part of life

Although he feels that speed is the key issue, Professor Whitelegg stressed that infrastructure and other pro-cycling initiatives are also important and the cycling lobby must talk to decision makers in ways they understand – namely in terms of cost-benefit analysis.
“We mustn’t talk about cycling defensively, as if it were an add-on, but rather as a vital part of health, environmental and economic planning.
“For example a 20 per cent increase in cycling trips in the UK would yield a cumulative saving of about five hundred million pounds by the year 2015. Investing in cycling gives a return ratio of between three and four and a half times. That’s a high quality return for your investment.”
“When I talk to someone about the health aspects, I say ‘I can offer you three years more life’ as I explain that moderate, regular cycling can increase a person’s life expectancy.”
As the cost of dealing with the consequences of health problems such as obesity escalates, preventative measures become more and more attractive.
“An increase in the number of regular cyclists delivers billions in health benefits so a sound financial strategy for a national health care system would be to spend health care cash on cycling,” he said.
According to Professor Whitelegg, a great deal of rhetoric and “greenwash” is produced by governments all over the world about the need to encourage cycling but the reality is quite different. The problems associated with road traffic danger are compounded by poor road maintenance and engineering that often confines cyclists to uneven surfaces strewn with broken glass and litter by the side of the road. He said that even when there are official bike paths they frequently abandon cyclists at a difficult junction or a roundabout where the cyclist is exposed to peak danger.
One effective solution, according to Professor Whitelegg, is for transport professionals and policy makers to get on bikes.

“My advice to them is: cycle around your own city. Then you will see what needs to be done.”

This article first appeared in Australian Cyclist March-April 2009

One Response to "Speed critical for survival"

  1. […] die. Yet at 30kmh the cyclist has a 95 per cent chance of surviving. (For more info on this see http://velocitywa.com.au/?page_id=667 […]

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