Disturbing news this morning: more people died on a bike than in a car in the Netherlands in 2017. A total of 206 people died on bicycles and 201 in cars. This is the first time that ever happened. The figure for cycling deaths is also the highest in 11 years. The fatality increase is completely male. The number of killed men went from 125 in 2016 to 148 in 2017. For women the total decreased a little, from 64 in 2016 to 58 in 2017. And yet, when you look at deaths per cycled kilometres, then cycling is becoming safer, not more dangerous.
Statistics Netherlands published the annual road fatalities this morning and the fact that “cycling is deadlier than driving” made all the headlines. In absolute figures the scale tipped indeed, as experts expected for quite some time now. The figure for motorists had been dropping for years and the figure for cycling had been steady. The fact that the population is growing and that the Dutch cycle more distance per person are the main reasons, but two other facts are striking: two-thirds of the cycle deaths are people over 65 years of age, while they only ride 3% of the total distance and the number of casualties on e-bikes almost doubled in one year, making the deaths on the e-bike a quarter of the total cycle fatalities. But the figure only increased for men, fewer women died on an e-bike. The death toll for men on an e-bike went from 20 in 2016 to 38 in 2017. Furthermore, a staggering 31 of these 38 men were over the age of 65.
Statistics Netherlands does not go into the causes of the crashes but the fact that the Dutch cycle so incredibly much is an important factor. “If you consider the growing cycled distance and the number of deaths and injuries, then you must conclude that cycling is in fact becoming safer”, said Peter van der Knaap, director of the Institute for Road Safety Research (SWOV) in the Volkskrant. In that same newspaper the Cyclists’ Union also wants to emphasise that they regret these grim figures. Spokesperson Jaap Kamminga: “Naturally every road death is one too many. But when you look at how much more we have been cycling – especially the elderly – then we must congratulate ourselves in the Netherlands. Cycling is healthy, we must continue to keep stimulating cycling.” Rob Stomphorst of the organisation VVN (Safe Traffic Netherlands) also focuses on the elderly on e-bikes. VVN calls on the cycle shops to better inform this age group about the differences in riding an e-bike. “Because of the e-bike the elderly can prolong the number of years they can keep cycling. But they should learn how to do that in the right way.” He said in Trouw. Most accidents take place without involvement of other road users, VVN says. While people are mounting or dismounting the e-bike or when they misjudge a road turn.
The Cyclists’ Union stresses that most deaths are still caused by cars crashing into people cycling. “That is why it is important to separate motor traffic from cycling. Where that is not possible, the speeds must come down. The Cyclists’ Union advocates a speed limit of 30km/h for all road users in the built-up areas.” said Martijn van Es of the Cyclists’ Union, also in Trouw. The Union would like road managers to improve the cycling infrastructure; better surfaces, fewer bollards and wider cycleways. The elderly should also get lessons in riding e-bikes safely. No Dutch road safety organisation advocates cycle helmets, only SWOV is somewhat favourable to helmets for e-bikes. But even SWOV acknowledges that the benefit of a helmet obligation is marginal. Investigations show it could make a possible difference of zero to five deaths per year. When cars crash with people cycling the causes are drunk driving, speeding and distractions caused by the mobile phone, says mr Stomphorst of VVN. He feels that smart phone use causing a crash is especially increasing. People overestimate their capabilities and feel they can look at their phone whenever they receive a notification, even while they are driving. Human error is the cause for 90% of all traffic deaths in the Netherlands.
Although the cycle deaths increased, the total number of road deaths (613) decreased with 16, compared to 2016. Earlier this month, the European Commission announced that The Netherlands is in the top three of safest countries in Europe, after Sweden and the UK when you look at fatalities per one million inhabitants (S 25, UK 27, NL 31). All three are well below the EU average of 49 road fatalities per one million inhabitants. Considering how vulnerable people are when cycling, and comparing the cycle figures of the other countries, then that ranking is an achievement the Dutch can be very proud of.
(all-in Dutch, except the EU press release)