Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
An alarming report making its way through the Dutch media requires a closer look.
Dutch young people are accustomed to riding their bicycles home drunk at the end of the night. That’s the warning from a new report by The Netherlands’ SWOV Institute for Road Safety, currently receiving coverage in Dutch media outlets.
According to the study, which examined cycling habits in the cities of Groningen and The Hague, 68 percent of young people in The Netherlands admit to getting on their bikes at night when under the influence of alcohol—or at least, that’s how the report’s accompanying press release puts it. Fast-forward to five in the morning and the share of younger riders cycling under the influence allegedly reaches 80 percent.
The number of total cyclists out at 5 a.m. is surely very low, but the crashes that result are not to be taken lightly. When it comes to weekend nights, around 50 percent of young Dutch cyclists involved in crashes have consumed alcohol. It’s thus reasonable to infer that consumption is compromising road safety in the country, and that these younger cyclists are taking foolish risks and exposing pedestrians and drivers to greater danger.
But is this the whole story? The SWOV’s report discusses the proportion of bicycle crashes that involve alcohol among a specific age group, at a particular time of the day. What it doesn’t do is provide actual numbers of incidents, or discuss how they relate in number to other road collisions. Are we talking about five incidents, or five thousand? The report doesn’t say.
In truth, the greatest peril facing both Dutch cyclists and pedestrians is the same as it is pretty much everywhere—people driving cars. According to Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment data examined by the news website Nu.nl, between 2007 and 2012, 58 percent of pedestrian deaths and just under 50 percent of cyclist deaths in the Netherlands were due to collisions with cars. Among these fatalities, the largest number of victims (40 percent of the total) were over the age of 70. Most fatal collisions involving cyclists, meanwhile, happened between 3 and 4 p.m. on weekdays, with fatalities dropping off sharply on weekends. In other words, the most high-risk group for serious cycling crashes consists of older, sober bicycle riders exposed to cars during busier daylight hours.
If there is a serious menace on the streets of the Netherlands, it quite clearly isn’t drunk young people cycling late on the weekends. In fact, you need to delve deep into the SWOV report to discover that the figure of 68 percent of younger cyclists riding under the influence refers to those still on the roads after 1 a.m., by which time most other people have already gone home.
None of this of course means that unsafe cycling should be tolerated. Even in a well-planned system like those that exist in The Netherlands, which largely segregates cyclists into lanes onto which pedestrians do not generally step, being oblivious to your own responsibilities always carries the risk of injuries and even potentially death.
There’s nonetheless a danger in spotlighting a particular problem in false isolation—it makes it look bigger than it is. By distracting attention from the most common sources of road fatalities, this kind of emphasis risks diverting action away from more serious problems, such as poorly protected junctions shared by cars and bikes, or bad road skills on the part of drivers.
For outsiders, meanwhile, there’s a lesson. Like Denmark, the Netherlands may be famous for its bike-friendly culture and exemplary lane infrastructure. Even here, however, cycling is an embattled subject of debate, where pro-cycling policies still face a degree of opposition and where cyclists themselves are so numerous that they are (quite reasonably) held up to scrutiny as a potential source of road hazards. This genuine risk needn’t distract us from a central truth. Even with a few fools behind the handlebars, the threat that bicycles expose the public to is infinitesimally small compared to that posed by cars.