Of all road users, cyclists are the most likely to die or be injured when they are involved in a road accident.

A examination of ten years’ worth of road fatality and hospitalisation data from the Transport Accident Commission (TAC) covering 2007 to 2017 showed that cyclists are bucking the downwards trend that’s occurring in other groups, with the risk for cyclist fatalities doubling in 2017.

While cyclists make up a tiny portion of the overall number of fatalities on Victorian roads – 12 out of 259 in 2017 – they are most at-risk group, followed by pedestrians who have also seen a small rise in their risk. However, pedestrians are still on a downwards trend overall while cyclists have experienced the opposite.

The news isn’t any better when it comes to hospitalisation due to a road accident.

Cyclists lead in both categories of data collected by TAC – hospitalisation for 14 days or less and hospital stays for over 14 days.

When it comes to a short stay (14 days or less), cyclists are the most likely to be admitted to hospital but there’s an worrying upwards trend for all groups in the last ten years.

When it comes to stays longer than 14 days, all of the other groups have seen a downwards trend except cyclists, with the number creeping back up in 2017 after dropping in 2016.

Australia-wide cyclist fatality rate hasn’t changed for 20 years

While Victoria has seen a rise in cyclist fatalities, crash data studies by the Bicycle Network and the Amy Gillett Foundation have shown that the rate of cyclist deaths over 20 years has remained static. Cyclists are the only road user group Australia-wide that hasn’t seen an improvement in the number of fatalities in the last 20 years.

The Bicycle Network and the Amy Gillett Foundation both used data from the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE) to do their studies. The BITRE data showed that on average, 37 cyclists have died each year due a road accident from 1987 to 2017.

According to the Bicycle Network study,  motor vehicles (cars and motor bikes) were involved 83 per cent of accidents where the cyclist was killed while truck and buses were involved 24 per cent of the time. Speed also plays a considerable role – 92 per cent of bike fatalities occurred in speed zones of 50km/h or more. The higher the speed of the vehicle at the point of impact, the more likely a cyclist is to be killed.

“It is unacceptable that there has been no meaningful reduction in the number of bike rider fatalities,” Bicycle Network CEO Craig Richards said.

“Bike rider fatalities in Australia haven’t decreased for two decades and sadly it seems there will be no improvement in 2018. What’s being done isn’t working and there needs to be immediate intervention.”

So, why is this happening?

The most regularly touted explanation is that there are simply more cyclists on the road these days. The problem with this argument is that there is no accurate data on how many people are riding bikes so it’s impossible to prove one way or the other. It also tends to imply that the fault lies with the cyclists.

However, if you ask cyclists what they think is happening, you get a fairly clear answer.

There is evidence to back up the position that it’s car drivers not cyclists causing problems on the road.  According to the Centre for Automotive Safety Research at the University of Adelaide, drivers are at fault at least 79 per cent of the time when an accident occurs between a cyclist and a vehicle.

The Australian Naturalistic Driving Study, a joint study between Monash University Accident Research Centre and the University of New South Wales, has thrown light on what’s going on when people get behind the wheel of their cars.

The study unobtrusively collected information on what car drivers were doing behind the wheel and involved 346 privately owned vehicles and 379 drivers in New South Wales and Victoria.  A data collection system including cameras was installed in each car for four months and tracked nearly two million kilometres of driving.

Driver behaviour was divided between primary and secondary tasks. Primary tasks were actions involved in the safe control of the car, including indicating and changing gears. Everything else was considered a secondary activity and some in-car activities were included such as adjusting seat belts, mirrors and sun visors.

A report was presented at the Australasian Road Safety Conference in early October and the results were startling.

The drivers involved in the study were distracted by a secondary task such as reaching for an object, eating food, personal hygiene or looking their mobile phone every 96 seconds.

Car drivers were distracted for 45 per cent of their total drive time.

When an incident that could’ve endangered others did occur, 23 per cent of the time the car driver was using their mobile phone, 20 per cent had the car driver involved in personal hygiene task and 10.5 per cent happened when the driver was reaching for an object or a phone. The most common incident was not noticing that a traffic light had changed to green, followed by poor situational awareness, swerving into another lane, hard braking and failing to indicate.

Alarmingly, only five per cent of drivers concentrated solely on the task of driving their car.

Mr Richards pointed out that cyclists are more than aware that car drivers aren’t paying 100 per cent attention when they’re driving.

“As bike riders we can see into cars and what drivers are up to. Every day we despair when we see drivers texting or just mucking around on Facebook. We understand the addictive lure of the phone but it’s risking people’s lives,” Mr Richards said.

Cycling IS a reasonably safe activity

But for all the doom and gloom, there is a bright side as cycling is a reasonably safe activity. A crash analysis released by the Bicycle Network in August found that possibility of a cyclist crashing is 0.003 per cent on any day, and 0.99 per cent in a year.

As for a crash that requires hospitalisation; the risk drops to 0.001 per cent on any given day. Mr Richards believes that this data goes a long way to dispelling the myth that cycling is an extremely dangerous activity.

“More people go to hospital each year from falling off chairs than they do falling off bikes.”