Should cycling mean taking your life in your hands?
Eight people have lost their lives this year in cycling accidents, compared to 10 in the whole of 2016. As cycling gains popularity as a commuting option across the country, Graham Clifford wonders whether urban cycling is just too risky a pursuit
As 45-year-old Donal O'Brien from Ovens in Cork took to his bike last Sunday morning, he would have already been aware of the tragic cycling accident which occurred just days before in Killarney.
The death of Annette Mannix, who was in her late 40s and a full-time carer for her elderly mother, shocked the cycling world here.
She'd been out riding with a group when she collided with a tractor on a town bypass.
As Annette was being buried at Aghadoe Cemetery in Killarney, Donal, described as a "larger than life character" and a "loveable rogue", was enjoying his cycle near Ballincollig.
It was a fresh but bright morning in Cork and Donal, who worked as the director of a car sales business and was a married father-of-one, was eager to unwind.
But tragedy struck on the N22 Cork to Macroom Road when his bike collided with a 4x4 driven by a woman with two young children in the vehicle. Paramedics attended but they were unable to resuscitate him. Donal was pronounced dead at the scene. He became the eighth cyclist to die on Irish roads this year. In the whole of 2016, 10 cyclists lost their lives and a year earlier the figure was nine.
Incredibly, 46 cyclists were killed on our roads in 1990 and 40 a year later. The years with the lowest death rates for cyclists involved in road traffic accidents was five (in 2010 and 2013).
Over the last 20 years, 248 cyclists in Ireland went out on their bicycles and never came home.
The cycling lanes factor
Many argue that Ireland is not cycling-friendly, that whatever few cycle lanes we have in towns and cities are insufficient and tokenistic. That we should be realistic and lock up those bikes for good. "They throw in the cycle lanes as an afterthought," says Jim Cooper in Cork.
"Where else would you get it? They paint a line down the side of the road and say "there's your cycling lane now" with no division between it and where the buses, trucks and cars roar past. Town and city planners haven't a clue in Ireland," he adds.
Jim has agreed to join me for a cycle in Cork city… but if truth be told, he's reluctant.
In 2015, the Dubliner was cycling in his native city when a motorbike collided with him at a roundabout. Despite wearing a cycling helmet, he sustained injuries to his face, severe bruising and lost six teeth.
"I should have been killed. After I came out of the hospital, I decided to stop cycling. I had a young son and thought to myself, 'this just isn't worth it'. I was pretty shook up," he tells me.
Within seconds of jumping on the saddle on Leeside we're obstacle-dodging.
Along South Mall, which doesn't have cycling lanes, I have to suddenly brake when a car inexplicably comes to a halt just a few feet in front of me. There are pedestrians crossing everywhere without as much as a sideways glance. It's like a video game of 'dodge the buggy'. A car suddenly pulls out from a laneway and my heart skips a beat. When I take a few seconds to get going again at a green light, I get a honk from the vehicle behind - nice. This is one street in one city in the middle of the day.
Cycle lanes, when they do exist, inexplicably end and even morph into bus lanes. Where planning in other countries begins with the cycling infrastructure, it feels like the reverse is the case here.
While I understand the merits of commuting to work by bike, I honestly don't know if I could handle this game of Russian roulette twice-a-day. Intersections are a head-wrecker and I keep expecting an 18-tonne truck to speed around the corner. Doesn't the stress outweigh the benefit of the exercise? At the end of our short cycle, Jim tells me: "That was nothing. Try Dublin at rush hour. Now that's real madness."
The rise of the Mamil
Despite this, more than 12,000 people cycle into Dublin city centre every day.
The Irish MAMIL (middle-aged man in lycra) is rapidly growing as a species, and the public bicycle scheme in Dublin (there are now five such schemes on the island of Ireland) is rated as the most well-used per head of population in any city in the world. But is that more a reflection on the cost of driving, traffic chaos and the lack of parking spaces than an endorsement of the capital's cycling infrastructure?
"The reality is that we're seeing a huge migration to the bike not just in Dublin but across the country," says Ciarán Cannon, Fine Gael TD for Galway East and a cycling advocate.
"Thousands are using cycling as a preferred mode of transport to get to work, college or for exercise and this is without adequate cycling infrastructure in place. Planners can't ignore this. More needs to be invested in making cycling more attractive and safe. The Cycle to Work scheme was a huge success, we must build on that. We can never just give in and allow ourselves to be a car-dominant nation," he tells Review.
But what about the danger levels in Dublin? The motorised traffic is bad enough but there's also the pedestrians, other cyclists, public transport and even the Luas Cross City works.
A dearth of helmets
Statistics provided by the UK's Department of Transport in recent years revealed that mile by mile, you're more likely to die while walking than cycling. For every billion miles cycled, 30.9 cyclists are killed in the UK compared to 35.8 pedestrians who died for every billion miles walked.
Undoubtedly there are other benefits, too of course including the fight on obesity and the impact to the climate and localised pollution.
But cultural change in Ireland still creeps along in relation to our treatment of cycling. Mike Breen from the Irish Centre for Cycling, which trains children and adults how to cycle safely, tells me: "Still it's not a legal requirement to wear a cycling helmet. It's advised but not required. I'd like to see that changed - especially in relation to children because you only have one brain."
Helmet-wearing rates in Ireland increased from 41pc to 52pc between 2014 and 2015, according to the Road Safety Authority. That still means a sizeable percentage of cyclists don't wear head protection. Despite countless public awareness campaigns, road safety for cyclists continues to be less than adequate. The families of Donal O'Brien, Annette Mannix and so many others can testify to that. But what's to be done?
The legislative route
A draft bill published by Ciarán Cannon seeks to initiate a new law which makes it an offence for drivers to pass cyclists too closely. Under the proposed new legislation, motorists would be obliged to pass cyclists no closer than 1.5 metres on roads with a speed limit of 50km/h or higher.
Drivers found to have breached the new rules would face an €80 fine and three penalty points under the new Road Traffic (Minimum Passing Distance of Cyclists) Bill 2017, which may or may not be revisited before the summer recess.
For cases that progress to the courts and where guilt is proven, the penalties increase to five penalty points and a fine of up to €1,500.
Cannon believes this punitive approach may be what's needed to finally accelerate the culture change amongst road users in Ireland.
"Asking motorists in Ireland to simply be more careful doesn't appear to be working. But laws which punish illegal activity such as driving too closely to a cyclist may well change minds," says Cannon. "For some unknown reason, there is a psychological anomaly which exists here where cyclists are often not seen as people. That comes from both motorists and planners. The great irony is that most cyclists are also motorists. We can and must do so much better. We can't give up, that would be a massive backward step for our country."
FIVE TOP TIPS FOR URBAN CYCLING
Wear a helmet
There’s no law to say you must but in the event of an accident, it could save your life or protect you from serious injury.
Wear high-visibility clothing
This is especially relevant in early morning, late evening and during winter. Ensure your bicycle also has reflectors.
Take up a safe and appropriate position on the road and remain there.
Especially when it comes to high-sided vehicles. If you have to slow down do so.
Obey the rules of the road
Often cyclists will run a red light or act inappropriately on the road. The rules are there to protect you so adhere to them always.
From Mick Breen, CEO of the Irish Centre for Cycling
Urban cyclists: which are you?
The MAMIL ( Middle-Aged-Man-In-Lycra)
Can be seen virtually anywhere, but passes by so fast he is easy to miss. Tight shorts a must.
The female version of above. A rarer breed that tends to travel in larger packs and do charity events.
May work in advertising. Prides himself (it’s usually a him) on being low-tech and sturdy. Errs towards the side of reckless on the roads.
The wicker-basket shopper
Generally female, this person will often be riding a high-Nelly style bike in black or pastel colours. Most likely to ride on footpath to avoid thundering traffic.
The urban bike-hire type
The city bike is the giveaway but the wearing of a business suit is common. No helmet. If a tourist, often travelling three abreast.