Understanding Health and Safety Best Practise when Cycling

When thinking about the Health and Safety of cyclists on our roads, it’s often in reference to wearing helmets and high visibility clothing. This message is drummed home by the Road Safety Authority in their advice to cyclists.

However, safety on our roads should not be only about what you wear, but about how you act. Personal protective equipment such as helmets and high-vis clothes should be your last line of defence, not your only one!

The Health and Safety Authority lays out the best practise for dealing with hazards and risks, and all of these principles should be applied to the more vulnerable users of our roads such as pedestrians and cyclists.

In order of precedence, all of the following control measures should be applied when dealing with a hazard  such as cycling on roads:

  1. Eliminate – get rid of the risk altogether, which would mean removing from the roads all cyclists, or conversely all motorised traffic. Eliminating the hazard altogether is the most effective way of reducing the risk, but in this case it doesn’t seem very practical. Neither motorists nor cyclists would look very kindly on the idea that they are not allowed on the roads any more.
  2. Substitute – swap the hazardous activity for a less hazardous one. On a per-kilometre basis, walking is actually more dangerous than cycling, so that’s not a good alternative. Flying is the safest form of travel, but doesn’t seem practical for most commutes – and so maybe we should all use the second safest form of travel, which is travelling by bus.
  3. Isolate – restricting access to the risk by isolating it somewhere else. Off-road cycle trails through parks and along canals and rivers would be great way to keep cyclists away from roads. We should also consider blocking off roads for exclusive pedestrian/cyclist use.
  4. Engineering Controls – redesign the environment to place a barrier between the person and the hazard.  In cycling terms that would be physically separated cycle lanes – not just a painted line at the side of a road! Many cycle campaigners have long called for segregated cycle paths, such as those that are commonplace in Copenhagen and Amsterdam. These cycle paths need to be well-designed and well-maintained to ensure they are fit for purpose. There are too many existing examples in Dublin where the path surface is falling apart or covered in debris, and where the path suddenly stops and diverts back into traffic – often at a dangerous junction.
  5. Administrative Controls – adopting procedures of safe practice – such as following the rules of the road – and not jumping red lights!  But also implementing laws to give cyclists the right of way at junctions, or to give a minimum passing clearance of 1.5 metres when overtaking.
  6. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) – the last line of defence when all other measures have been exhausted – particularly as PPE only offers limited protection against the hazard.

The “elimination” of risk seems unlikely, as does the “substitution”. However it should be very possible to implement the “isolation”, “engineering controls”, and “administrative controls”.

Indeed, if the government is serious about achieving its target of getting 10% of people cycling to work by 2020, then it needs to put a lot more thought and money into cycle safety. And that doesn’t mean buying everyone a high-vis jacket – it means some thoughtful legislation for the protection of cyclists, and some decent investment in infrastructure.

One of the principal reasons stopping people from riding their bikes on the roads is fear! Fast-moving and inconsiderate motor-vehicles on badly-designed roads means that many bikes languish unused in garages and sheds. And those that do venture out and cycle on the pavement, in order to try and feel a bit safer, get vilified by pedestrians, drivers, and the law!

Of course, there would be no need to cycle on the pavement if there we had decent cycle lanes – ones that are physically segregated from motor traffic, and that:

  • can’t be used as a car park
  • are well maintained – cleared of snow in winter, and debris (particularly glass) the rest of the year
  • are of a good design – don’t have a crumbling surfaces, or countless places where cyclists have to yield to cars
  • are continuous – don’t suddenly disappear when the road gets a bit narrow, or when there’s a junction
  • are wide enough for cyclist to pass each other – because not everyone rides at the same speed
  • don’t send cyclists off on a massive detour

In fact we need the kind of cycling infrastructure that you see in Amsterdam and Copenhagen (where 40% of people cycle to work). Their segregated cycle paths (and also legislation that gives priority to cyclists at junctions) ensures that they provide a much safer environment for cycling, where bikes are physically separated from the hazardous environment of a road. And because of it, there’s no need for personal protective equipment. There’s no need for helmets and high vis, because they are in a safe environment.

Richard Bloomfield

Richard is the founder of Dublin Bike Blog. He commutes to work every day by bike, come rain or shine, on his Dutch city bike. You can read more from Richard on his blog richardbloomfield.ie.

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