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Tuesday, 16 April, 2002, 10:09 GMT 11:09 UK
The great cycling gamble
Britons cycle less than other Europeans. The reason for many is that they are scared to go on the road. So what can be done?

Given the choice of thundering along the roads strapped into a steel cage designed to withstand a collision or taking your chances pedalling in the gutter with little more than a plastic helmet for protection - it's little wonder some people shy away from the bicycle.

Jeremy Clarkson
Will petrolheads ever leave their cars?
Last year, commuter Toby Barrett found out just how vulnerable cyclists can be when his bike was struck by a car at a roundabout.

"I was stationary at the time and so was the traffic behind me. The car behind me moved off, I didn't and so I was hit from behind and knocked off."

The accident didn't prompt Mr Barrett to hang up his bicycle clips, but did change his behaviour.

"I don't take the most direct route because it would take me along a fast dual carriageway. I take a longer route. I'm not sure if it is safer, but it's more pleasant."

The car behind me moved off, I didn't and so was hit from behind

Toby Barrett
In London - which has the UK's highest proportion of cycling accidents - the fear of being hit by motor vehicles is the main thing keeping would-be cyclists out of the saddle, according to the London Cycling Campaign.

Though the government has embarked on a scheme to build 10,000 miles of cycle paths by 2005, many people are still fearful about riding from their homes or workplaces to get to these safe routes.

So how to make our ordinary roads more cycle-friendly? This is the very subject under discussion at a major conference being held on Tuesday, sponsored by the Department of Transport.

Share the road

Hugh McClintock, one of the academics behind Achieving Cycle-Friendly Infrastructure, says bicycles and motor vehicles can share the same roads - provided they are designed with bikes in mind.

"Most roads and streets are laid out for cars. Some of these layouts positively encourage cars to speed up," he says.

A cyclist rides in front of a bus
Can cyclists share the road safely?
Given this design bias towards fast motor traffic, it is little wonder that - per kilometre travelled - cyclists are 14 times more likely to meet with a serious or fatal accident than car drivers.

Mr McClintock says that slowing cars would help cut cycling deaths (put at 127 in 2000, according to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents).

However, he warns that some traffic calming measures - particularly those which narrow a by-way - actually put cyclists in increased danger.

What's up with the junction?

Also in need of attention are road junctions - scene of three-quarters of all accidents injuring cyclists - and roundabouts, which could be made cyclist-friendly with the addition of traffic lights.

John Franklin, author of Cyclecraft, says some current cycle lanes at road junctions are woefully inadequate, actually "directing cyclists to the very part of the road where the risk of being hit is greatest".

On the whole, cycling can lengthen your life
The UK sees less than half the cycling fatalities per 100,000 people than in Germany. However, Germans make five times as many journeys by bike as Britons.

Cycling groups in the UK are keen that the risks involved in bike riding are not exaggerated. A London Cycling Campaign spokesperson told BBC News Online the health benefits of using a bike far outweigh the danger of being knocked off by a car.

Thanks to the regular exercise, cyclists can expect to live on average 10 years longer than the sedentary motorists.

The strength and co-ordination cycling helps develop can even reduce the severity of injuries resulting from a whole range of non-cycling accidents or even (according to National Cycling Forum research) stop you putting a foot wrong in the first place.

Are the dangers of cycling exaggerated, or do you have firsthand experience of how mean our streets can be for bike riders?
Click here to add your comments

Some of your comments:

More and more motorists are busy on their mobile phones and pay scant attention to other road users and tend to turn into roads as an afterthought at the last minute. A human life is worth more than a bloody phone call.
Homa Jansen, Norway

Most regular cyclists have experienced near-death situations as a result of drivers impatience. Drivers in Britain though are positively considerate compared to those in Spain. Here riding a bike on the open road is almost certain suicide.
Matt Atchison, Spain

Only this weekend, an elderly gentleman driving a Jag missed me by a couple of inches. That was on an empty straight road! Maybe a bit more driver education wouldn't go amiss.
Mike T, Wales

Current provision for cyclists is pathetic. Most cycle lanes are simply arbitrary use of white paint with no thought for usability or safety.
Keith Hales, UK

Many cycle lanes are useless because they are put in place by council types who have never been on a bike in their lives. All planning of big cities should be done with cyclists near the top of the list and cars at the bottom.
Mike Meakin, UK

Most cycle lanes in my area seem designed to take riders off the roads altogether. This simply plays into the hands of those motorists who see the road network as their exclusive domain.
Richard Crispin, UK

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