Elderly cyclists, beware!

Published on 13 May 2015 by Hilary Staples

Holland claims to be the safest country in the world to ride a bike, but for one group of cyclists the statistics are not so good: the elderly. Last year 107 out of the 185 cyclists that were killed in a traffic accident were older than 65. Why is this group more at risk? And if elderly people are more at risk, should they be discouraged from cycling?
As the Dutch population grows older, more elderly cyclists take to the road. Photo © Holland-Cycling.com

As the Dutch population grows older, more elderly cyclists take to the road. Photo © Holland-Cycling.com

Holland takes great pride in its leading position in cycling safety. The number of cyclists killed per travelled km is the lowest in the world. On average a Dutch inhabitant cycles 864 km per year, while the number of fatal crashes per billion km is 10.7. On the other end of the scale come the United States with 47 km per inhabitant and 44 cycle deaths a year. You may conclude that the more people cycle, the safer it becomes.

But as the Dutch population is ageing and more elderly cyclists take to the road, other statistics show that safety for this group is not improving. The number of fatal accidents among cyclists is more or less stable, but the percentage of elderly casualties is increasing. Last year 107 out of the 185 cycle deaths involved over-65s. Why is this group so much more at risk than the average cyclist?

Cycle deaths vs. cycled km. Averages 2006-2009, source: OECD. Graphics © Holland-Cycling.com

Cycle deaths vs. cycled km. Averages 2006-2009, source: OECD. Graphics © Holland-Cycling.com

More vulnerable

Thanks to the e-bike, cyclists can continue riding their bike until a much higher age, even when they’re not quite as fit and alert as they used to be. However, the e-bike is faster than an ordinary bike and requires a quicker reaction time. It’s easy to underestimate your speed on an e-bike. If things go wrong at a higher speed, the injuries are more serious - also because old age makes one physically more vulnerable.

My 74-year-old Mum was very proud of her new e-bike. She hadn’t cycled much for years. On one of her very first trips, she misjudged a turn and hit a post. Luckily, it only resulted in a few broken bones, the most common injury among elderly cyclists that take to the e-bike.

Another, more serious, problem is that other road users are not yet used to e-bikes. Seeing elderly people peddling slowly in an upright position does not suggest speed, which is misleading - other road users simply don’t expect them to be going as fast as they are. This results in more accidents and more cycle deaths.

‘Road health’

Cycling safety is an important issue in Holland and there’s general concern about elderly cyclists being more at risk. So what can we do to bring down the statistics? Should I discourage my elderly Mum from cycling? Not according to Jaap Kamminga from the Dutch Cyclists' Union: "As a society we shouldn't make the mistake of discouraging cycling in order to prevent accidents. The elderly are at a greater risk of having an accident when they cycle, but they also stay healthy for longer if they continue moving. This health benefit is much greater."

Kamminga believes the discussion about road safety focuses too much on statistics and accidents and too little on the environmental effects (less air pollution) and general health benefits. He calls this ‘road health’.

Improving safety

To make cycling safer - also for the over-65s - the Dutch Cyclists’ Union recommends improving bike infrastructure and introducing technical measures such as an airbag for cyclists and Intelligent Speed Assist (ISA). Dutch Road Safety Organisation VVN suggests a voluntary test for elderly cyclists: “That way cyclists can find out what there weak points are. This will help them to participate in traffic more safely.”

Also read: High speed on cycle paths, part 1 - How safe is the e-bike?

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