Poor Cyclists Key to Safe Roads

Are poor cyclists and a laissez-faire attitude to enforcing road laws on them the key to safer roads? Are those that cycle on the wrong side of the road, pedal on the pavement and rush along one-way streets the wrong way one of the main reasons why the Netherlands has some of the safest roads in the world?

After writer Caleb Crain converted from wayward biker to obedient cyclist (using two simple rules: Bike in such a way that even relatively inattentive drivers can be expected to see you and know what you’re going to do next, and Don’t be annoying to pedestrians) he read the following that made him question his new-found indignation toward bike salmon:

I was therefore interested, and a little chastened, to read in Jeff Mapes’s Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities, that moral indignation about the adherence of bicyclists to traffic laws is absent from the Netherlands, the utopia of cycling, which has, Mapes reports, “the lowest per-capita vehicle death rate in Europe,” about a third that of the United States. Except for the requirement that bicycles on the road at night have lights, Dutch police do not enforce traffic laws on cyclists. Explains Mapes:

The Dutch don’t see much sense in going after cyclists and walkers when the only people they are putting at risk are themselves. “It’s their choice,” shrugged [Amsterdam top traffic-safety official Jack] Wolters. … The statistics seem to bear him out. … One influential 2003 study, by researchers John Pucher and Lewis Dijkstra, found American cyclists were at least three times as likely to get killed as Dutch cyclists, while American pedestrians faced at least six times the danger of dying.



4 responses to “Poor Cyclists Key to Safe Roads”

  1. dolf

    that It might be, I always thought that the low number of deaths was *despite* the Dutch way of cycling, not because of the way the Dutch cycle.

    A different reasons for the low deaths in the Netherlands might be that when a car and a cyclist are in a traffic accident, the liability is always with the car driver even when, for example, the cyclist had ignored a red light. This makes car drivers more alert.

    Another one might be that there is no person in the Netherlands that is able to walk that doesn’t own a bicycle. A visit to Amsterdam will bring this home, as there are more bikes there than people. There are cyclists in the Netherlands, for sure. People who, in the weekend dress themselves in Lycra to go out on a tour. But everybody else just rides their bikes. It is not a special thing to do, not a scene, not a hobby, it’s just a mode of transport. So, people in the Netherlands really know how to cycle. One can always immediately recognise tourists on bikes in Amsterdam. It is like watching toddlers perform in the Olympic 110m. hurdling.

    As an aside, the Dutch never wear helmets when on their bikes. Maybe some children wear them nowadays, but when you see one on an adult cyclist, 100% chance that person is foreign.

  2. Dorf, I love these insights and in reading them I realise how true they are. My girlfriend is Dutch and I’m currently in the process of moving over there and these observations are so very true.

    I’m a fairly proficient cyclist, but compared to the Dutch–even 10 year old girls–I’m a novice (or, as you say, a toddler performing in the Olympic 110m. Hurdling.)!

    I wonder if I’ll ever fit in!

  3. I think it’s plausible that the accident rate is lower because cyclists are a part of the car driving education in the Netherlands (and Denmark and other very bicycle-friendly countries). That is, drivers there may be more “automatically” alert of eventual cyclists in traffic than in countries like the US, thus lowering the accident rate.

    I love my bicycle, so if I had to move out of Denmark, I would move to the Netherlands!

  4. Yes, from my personal observations I’ve noticed that those driving in the Netherlands seem naturally more alert than the British (the only other nationality I can compare with).

    There is more general observation, constantly looking out for possible hazards, undoubtedly brought on by an upbringing surrounded by pedestrian and mounted hazards (cyclists).