Tuesday, 27 March 2012

The Good Life looks marginally worse, thanks to a voice from my past...

Reported Road Casualties Great Britain - Definitions, symbols and conventions
Readers who’ve read as far back as the first post on this blog – posted in the now long-ago days of January 20 – may recall that I fretted about my prospects of one day feeling my life slipping away on some south London road because of the foolish bravado of some BMW driver. It was melodramatic, I admit – I started feeling more secure on the roads shortly afterwards, when I replaced my worn Schwalbe Marathon Pluses with new, better-gripping ones.

But I now realise I should have been thinking just as hard about the prospect I might find myself slipping into an irreversible coma.

After my second-last post on this blog, about whether cycling was part of the traditional philosophical conception of the Good Life, I emailled Gordon Graham, the philosopher who introduced me 24 years ago to the idea of the Good Life, to see what he made of the piece. Prof Graham, now at Princeton Theological Seminary, was generous enough to say he’d enjoyed the post but asked a question: were my data incomplete? Prof Graham wondered if, perhaps, while motorists were far less likely than cyclists to die on the roads, they might be more prone to injury.

Pedestrians, albeit not in the UK: set to get fewer smug looks
from the Invisible Visible Man

The gloomy answer, on investigation in the Department for Transport statistics, is that there’s actually an especially high proportion of serious injuries to deaths for cyclists. And I don’t like the sound of a serious injury. It’s “an injury for which a person is detained in hospital as an in-patient, or any of the following injuries whether or not they are detained in hospital: fractures, concussion, internal injuries, crushings, burns (excluding friction burns), severe cuts, severe general shock requiring medical treatment and injuries causing death 30 or more days after the accident”.

In 2010, there were, I calculate, 23.96 serious injuries to cyclists for every fatality, 11.86 for motorbikes, 10.67 for car occupants and 12.84 for pedestrians. The only good news is that a broken wrist or severe shock is enough to get you into company with people who die after six weeks in a coma – and that cycling still looks much safer than riding a motorbike. For every billion vehicle kilometres, 553 cyclists were killed or seriously injured in 2010, against 1,021 motorcyclists, 322 pedestrians and 15 people in cars.

While cycling is still less likely than many people assume to kill you, you've got a relatively higher chance of being hurt badly. If something makes it through the steel shell of a car, meanwhile, there's a relatively high chance it's going to kill you.

The health and environmental benefits still mean I’m pedalling towards the Good Life, I reckon. But I’ll be looking that little bit less smugly at the pedestrians as I go there.

Do the new figures change your minds about whether cycling is part of the Good Life? Do please comment below.


  1. I am reluctant (and likely) to demonstrate my lack of faculties, especially in comparison to the I-V-Man or the worthy Prof. Graham, but I respectfully wonder if we are on solid ground in conflating 'good life' with 'long life' and even 'safe life', and I further wonder what bearing injury or death have on the pursuit of the good life?

    Would the rational person choose to abandon TPOTGL (the pursuit of the good life) because of a risk calculation? Would she abandon virtue or truth or beauty because of a statistically significant correlation?

    There are exceptions, of course - the sole parent providing for a special-needs, dependent child might find their own life expectancy more pertinent than others would, and might virtuously consider risk in a different way - but if I may, I might ask other questions : What long-term harm is wrought by bicycling, vs. alternative methods? Would it be desirable to have more (or fewer) people on bicycles?

    I do not think I'm immune to the normal distribution - that would be the ultimate hubris, I think - and in fact I'm extra wary when riding on Friday afternoons (in the States, Friday afternoons have a higher rate of fatal bicycle accidents) but I have never stayed off the bike on a Friday because of it.

    Perhaps the statistics are not "significant" to me because they weren't what got me on the bicycle in the first place. And so I wonder, are the statistics (re)shaping anybody's behavior?

    Humbly, V.

    1. Vannevar,

      Thank you very much for your comment. I don't know whether you read the original post to which this refers (it's at http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/it-may-be-fun-but-is-cycling-part-of.html). But Dr Graham (as he then was) concluded at the end of his lecture series that the Good Life was the rational life, where one sought to do good but also to be effective - to do things that made a real difference, rather than gestures. So probably a series of calculations about risks and other factors probably is a worthwhile thing to do.

      I didn't say it in the original post but Dr Graham specifically considered aesthetism (the idea that the point of life was to pursue beauty) and discarded it. Apologies if your life is built around the pursuit of beauty - but Prof Graham doesn't think you're pursuing a coherent idea, as far as I can remember.

      But I did specifically consider some of the other points (such as the long-term harm wrought by cycling versus other modes) and they're definitely in the "yes, you can keep riding your bike" side of the balance.

      In short, the biggest clue as to my attitude is this: I'm still on my bike every day.


  2. I guess we are fortunate that few of us will cycle 1 billion miles! Seems to me that a more valid presentation of data when comparing motorized vs. human-powered transportation might be deaths and injuries per billion exposure hours, or some such metric.

    I agree with Invisible Man that motorcycling seems intrinsically more dangerous. In addition to the lack of protective engineering that MC and bicyclists share, the moto is usually going a lot faster. The human body was not designed to turn all that kinetic energy into deformation. While modern moto gear contains a lot of protective stuff such as leather jacket armoring, it doesn't take the place of a steel cage.

    Me? I definitely think I am safer on my bicycles, but have both the human and petrol powered examples in the garage.

    Be safe out there, but more than that, be happy!

    1. Given that there are 36 cyclist fatalities every billion vehicle miles, I think one would be fortunate to survive cycling a billion miles (and I guess, at an average speed of, say, 12 miles an hour, it would take a while as well).


    2. About 9500 years, if my calculator or brain works at this hour. I suspect something else will get me by then.

  3. So, I conclude that cyclists go fast enough to hurt themselves (unlike pedestrians), but not fast enough to complete the job (like motorcyclists). What is that ratio for airline passengers? Alas, I fear I will never travel a billion vehicle kilometers on my bike.

    1. In 2009, all-severity injury rate for air passengers was 0.01 per billion passenger kilometres.

      Focusing on injury statistics: if I switch from car to bike, I increase the probability that I will be injured, but reduce the probability that I will injure other people, so this seems to qualify as "doing good to others". And that's before the wider societal benefits that cycling (instead of driving) brings.

      Sadly, I enjoy cycling so much that I fear I would do it even if it harmed others. My high horse has no legs.

  4. It's an interesting post about the good life.

    I know nothing about it, but is it possible that "The Good Life" is a bit selfish?

    My main motivation for cycling is not personal safety. Rather I wish to be more harmless for others.

    Ideally, I'd walk everywhere, but this is not practical.

    Cycling is the most energy efficient way to get around.

    To sum it up, my main motivation is to not kill a child.

    If I die, I'm gone. If I'm hurt, I'm hurt.

    But if I hurt another person, I can not live with this.

    Every religion has a notion of retribution. There's no religion that says that NOT hurting people is bad. Thus, being harmless is very much part of the "Good Life" in all human philosophies.

    1. Fred,

      Thank you very much for your comment. I don't know if you've read the original post on which this is a follow-up (it's at http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/it-may-be-fun-but-is-cycling-part-of.html). But I go into the idea of the Good Life in more detail there.

      I don't think the idea of the Good Life is fundamentally selfish. The previous post builds on the idea (picked up when I studied moral philosophy) that the good life is the rational life - a life where one seeks to do one's best by others but also seeks to behave reasonably, directing efforts where they will achieve most good. I think that's fairly altruistic.

      But you are undoubtedly right (and I avoided mentioning it in the previous post only because I've discussed it in previous blogposts such as http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/minister-who-made-invisible-visible-man.html) that it's an attraction of cycling that one's most unlikely to harm others. It's just a pity so many people peddle the silly untruth that cyclists somehow pose a serious risk to pedestrians,



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