Cycling is safer than driving for young British males ages 17 to 20 - driving brings an almost five times greater risk per hour of an accident than cyclists of the same age.

So if your parents hand you a 10-speed instead of a stick shift this Christmas, thank epidemiologists who looked at hospital admissions and deaths in England between 2007 and 2009 for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers, analyzed them by age-group and sex, and then paid to publish it in PLoS ONE. They used National Travel Survey data in England for the same time period and converted the distance traveled by each age-group, sex and mode of transport into time spent travelling using mean trip speeds.

Those most at risk when travelling were men aged between 17 and 20 for driving, males aged over 70 for cycling and females aged over 70 for walking. In general, fatality rates were substantially higher among males than females.

"What we found is that risks were similar for men aged between 21 and 49 for all three modes of transport and for female pedestrians and drivers aged 21 and 69 years," said lead author Dr. Jennifer Mindell of University College London. "However, we found that for young male cyclists between 17 and 20 years of age, cycling was markedly safer than traveling by car.

"Perceived road danger is a strong disincentive to cycling and many potential cyclists do not ride on the road due to safety concerns. But research regarding the safety of cycling tends to be distorted by a number of errors which are found repeatedly in published papers and policy documents, with many substantially overstating cycling injuries and under-reporting pedestrian injuries."

The team went on to compare the UK data with figures from Holland, a country widely perceived as bike-friendly. They found a similar pattern in both countries, with teenage male cyclists less likely to suffer serious injury or death than those traveling by car.

"This research dispels the idea that risk for UK cyclists is substantially higher than for drivers or pedestrians, and hopefully will encourage more people to take up something which is not only good for health, but also the environment," said Mindell. "An individual who cycles one hour a day for 40 years would cover about 180,000km, whilst accumulating only a one in 150 chance of fatal injury. This is lower than for pedestrians who face a higher fatality rate per kilometre travelled. The health benefits of cycling are much greater than the fatality risk." 

Active travel - defined as walking or cycling - is estimated to save £17 bn in healthcare costs alone, according to a recent Lancet paper.

Citation: Mindell JS, Leslie D, Wardlaw M (2012) Exposure-Based, ‘Like-for-Like’ Assessment of Road Safety by Travel Mode Using Routine Health Data. PLoS ONE 7(12): e50606. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0050606