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Have our cycle paths become any safer?

Being a cycling nation, the Dutch have come up with creative bike solutions to deal with the problems of traffic congestion and pollution. On a Dutch cycle path you’ll see all types of bikes from the traditional oma fiets to the streamlined velomobile, from the bulky cargo bike to the speedy electric bike. But can our cycle paths cope with such a diverse fleet of bikes?

In 2014 we followed the heated debate about how the e-bike affects safety on our busy cycle paths in our series High speed on the cycle paths. Although the opinions were divided, cyclists agreed on one thing: things needed to change. Now, 4 years on, what changes do we see and have they made a difference? Find out in our series High speed on the cycle paths. Part 4: Have our cycle paths become any safer?

In 2017 there was an increase in fatal accidents with elderly e-cyclists. Photo © Holland-Cycling.comIn 2017 there was an increase in fatal accidents with elderly e-cyclists. Photo ©

'Increase in the number of fatal bike accidents in 2017', 'For the first time more deaths through accidents on the bike than in the car'. The headlines in the media in April suggest something is going really wrong on the Dutch cycle paths. But do mere statistics tell the whole story? Let's look what the main concerns about how the e-bike affects safety on the cycle paths were back in 2014 and see what's happened over the last four years.

Fatal bike accidents in 2017:
  • 206 deaths through accidents on the bike vs. 201 in the car
  • Two thirds of the cyclists killed were over 65 years old
  • A quarter were accidents with an e-bike

Legal status speed pedelec

One major concern in 2014 was the huge difference in speed between the regular bike and the e-bike that have to share the same cycle paths. Especially the speed pedelec that can reach speeds of up to 45 km/h was causing a heated debate. Where does it belong, on the cycle path (but it's too fast), or on the road (but it's too vulnerable)?

In 2017 new laws for the speed pedelec were introduced. The speed pedelec is no longer classed as a light moped, but as a moped. A moped license, insurance and helmet are compulsory. Also the same traffic rules and speed limits apply as for a regular moped. This means the speed pedelec is no longer permitted on dedicated cycle paths, many of which are in urban areas.

Speed pedelec drivers that have been banned from the cycle paths say they don't feel safe between motorised traffic. To solve that problem, the Dutch Cyclists' Union advocates reducing the maximum speed in urban areas from 50 km/h to 30 km/h. However, there is some debate as to whether this measure would actually work.

Elderly e-cyclists

The second, possibly greater concern was the growing number of accidents with elderly cyclists. In 2014 the popularity of the e-bike which allows elderly cyclists to ride more and faster too, was thought to be to blame. And when accidents happen, the injuries are likely to be more severe, or fatal.

Elderly e-cyclists are now encouraged to take e-bike lessons to get used to their new bike before going out on the road. According to the Dutch Cyclists' Union, these lessons are making an huge difference. There is now even some debate whether e-bike lessons should be made compulsory, not just for elderly cyclists, but for all cyclists.

Another positive factor are the many improvements to the infrastructure for cyclists. More and more posts in the middle of the cycle path are being removed because they are dangerous. These posts were meant to prevent cars from going on to cycle paths, but unfortunately turned out to be the ideal obstacle for elderly e-cyclists to bump into.

Recently, many cycle paths have been broadened, turned into 'bike highways', or even 'bicycle streets' - i.e. roads that are intended for bikes, but that cars may use as a guest - to accommodate the ever growing number of cyclists.

Statistics 2017

Clearly a lot of good things have happened in the past 4 years. So what about the dire statistics of 2017 and the alarming headlines in the media? How do they fit into the picture? For the first time Holland recorded more deaths through accidents on the bike (206 deaths) than in the car (201 deaths). Two thirds of the cyclists killed were over 65 years old. A quarter were riding on an e-bike.

It's mainly a matter of demographics: the Dutch population is ageing. There are now more people over 60 than ten years ago. This group is healthier and cycles more than ever. So although the number of fatal bike accidents with elderly cyclists has increased, cycling has actually become safer: the number of accidents per kilometre has gone down, also for this group.

Forgiving cycle paths

With an ageing population that is keen to go out on their bike, it's important that bike infrastructure is also adapted to the needs of elderly cyclists. The Cyclists' Unions says bike infrastructure should be designed in such a way that 'you are happy to let your 8-year-old child and your 80-year-old grandma cycle. If it is safe for them, it is safe for everyone.' The focus is now on turning our cycle paths into 'forgiving cycle paths' - broad cycle paths with safe verges and clear road markings that allow you to make a steering error without the risk of a fall or bumping into other cyclists.

Have our cycle paths become any safer since 2014? Yes! Although the statistics show that the number of fatal accidents with cyclists increased by 4% over the past ten years, bike use increased by 12% - so the risk of a fatal accident has gone down. Still every death is one too many and safety on our cycle paths remains an ongoing concern. The proposed changes in bike infrastructure are a welcome contribution to making cycling in Holland even safer than it already is.

High speed on cycle paths series: