The findings are released today in a study by the University of Glasgow and published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).
Overall, commuting exclusively by bicycle was associated with a 45% higher risk of injury that required a visit to hospital, and cycling commuters were also at a 3.4 fold higher risk of injury where the cause was listed as a transport accident. The risk of injury was higher still in those that cycled longer distances to work.
However, the researchers found that the risk of injury is counterbalanced by the lower risk of cancers, heart disease and deaths seen in cycling commuters.
The British Social Attitudes survey of adults suggests that only 4% of people cycle to work once a week despite 39% owning a bicycle. Crucially, 64% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that cycling on the road is too dangerous.
Senior author of the study, Dr Paul Welsh, from the University of Glasgow, said: "We know there is a perception that cycling in commuter traffic is dangerous, and that this perception may be putting people off actively commuting by bike to work.
"Now, as a result of this research, we can to some extent quantify the risk associated with this form of commuting. If 1000 people incorporate cycling into their commute for 10 years we would expect 26 more injuries, but 15 fewer cancers, 4 fewer heart disease events, and three fewer deaths. So, the benefits offset the risks, and this should be encouraging, but more needs to done to make commuter cycling safe."
While authors of the study did not carry out research into the methods and facilities that could be used to make commuting by bicycle safer, they were able to put their findings into the wider context of current cycle safety.
Dr Welsh said: "Although we did not investigate strategies to make cycling safer, initiatives such as segregated cycle lanes, speed reductions and traffic calming have been shown, in previous work, to provide improved safety.
"Our work along with other research in this area suggests that, there is a need for both local and central government in the UK to consider a wide range of options for improving cycling-specific, as well as general, road safety. Without improvements, many people simply won’t consider cycling as a viable commute option"
Data for the study was collected from 230,390 commuters recruited from 22 sites across the UK who participated in UK Biobank. Of those included in the research 52% were female with a mean age of 52.4 years, and 47% lived within 5 miles of work, though only 2.5% of participants said that cycling was their main form of commuter transport, and 8.3% used cycling at all.
Compared to non-active commuters - which made up 77.5% of the group studied - cycle commuters had lower BMI, were more likely to be male, and less likely to be a current smoker or have a history of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, or other longstanding health issues. Even after accounting for these differences in profile, cycling commuters were at lower risk of cancer, heart disease and death.
The study, ’Association of injury-related hospitalisation with commuting by bicycle in the UK - A prospective population based study’ is published in the BMJ. The work was conducted using UK Biobank data.
- Dr Paul Welsh profile
- Dr Carlos Celis-Morales profile
- BHF Centre of Excellence in Vascular Science and Medicine
- Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences
- College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences
- Link to the study in the BMJ