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Commentary: Cycling, the third most dangerous sport

American football remains the first, followed by hockey, says one economist.

Commentary: Cycling, the third most dangerous sport

A man with an oBike at a bicycle parking lot in Ang Mo Kio. (Photo: Kenneth Lim)

BOSTON, Ohio: It’s summer, a time when many people who might have spent the winter hibernating get outside and start being more active by doing things like playing sports and going for bike rides.

While raising your heart rate and exercising your muscles is unquestionably a good thing, being more active – particularly after a long stretch of inactivity – has a downside: Increased risk of injury.

This led me to wonder, how safe are the sports and other activities performed by a typical weekend warrior – or anyone really? Which sports are the most dangerous?

I am personally interested in the answers to these questions because I am now two-thirds into a cross-country bicycle trip, from Seattle to Washington.

When people I meet along the way learn a middle-aged man is pedaling alone along highways, gravel roads and bike trails, the first question they usually ask is: “Is it safe?”

Given the near misses and one crash on loose gravel I have had since I set out a month ago, I tell them my own experience suggests it is not the safest activity.


Still, personal experience is no substitute for looking at actual data.

The US Consumer Product Safety Commission tracks specific types of injury from every kind of sport and makes this available online. This database not only tracks sports-related injuries but also those from contact with any kind of consumer product from ATVs to workshop tools.

The agency estimates that using faulty consumer products costs the US more than US$1 trillion a year due to damage, death and injuries.

Great Britain's Christopher Froome rides in the last kilometers of the 17th stage of the 105th edition of the Tour de France cycling race, between Bagneres-de-Luchon and Saint-Lary-Soulan Col du Portet, southwestern France, on July 25, 2018 AFP/Marco BERTORELLO

The injury surveillance system has tracked injuries since 1979. It counts only injuries that resulted in a person ending up in a hospital emergency room. Those that people take care of at home or leave untreated are not counted.


Perhaps unfortunately for me, the database shows that what I’m doing – bicycling – is indeed quite dangerous.

An estimated 455,000 people were injured while using a bicycle in 2017 and ended up in an emergency room, the third-highest in the sports and recreational equipment category.

The most dangerous sports or recreational activity, according to the data, was simply going to the gym and using exercise equipment, which resulted in an estimated 526,000 trips to the Emergency Room last year. Basketball came second, with an estimated half-million injuries.

Bike riders, basketball players and gym rats freaked out by these figures could take up a safer hobby, such as horseback riding, which resulted in a comparatively low 49,000 ER visits in 2017.

Trainer Bob Baffert walks Kentucky Derby winner Justify in the barn after the horse arrived at Pimlico Race Course for the upcoming Preakness Stakes on May 16, 2018 in Baltimore, Maryland AFP/Rob Carr


Some readers may be wondering, where does American football – which some consider the most dangerous sport – rank? Or hockey for that matter, with all its fighting and sharp ice skates?

The problem with using the commission’s aggregate data to compare the dangers of various sports and activities is that participation rates vary. One reason few people are injured horseback riding is that relatively few people ride horses compared with the much greater number who shoot hoops in their driveway or at the neighbourhood playground.

The most common types of exercise are walking and using exercise equipment and weights, which I consider going to the gym. Using the gym figures as a baseline, it is possible to compute a participation adjustment figure for each sport.

For example, the data show 2.5 times more people go to the gym on a typical day than play basketball. This means basketball injury figures need to be increased by 2.5 times to make a fair comparison of being hurt in the gym versus being hurt on the court.

After making these adjustments, the most dangerous activity rankings change quite a bit, and going to the gym is no longer number one because it is so popular. Rather, American football with a comparatively low 341,000 estimated injuries in 2017 becomes the most dangerous sport. Hockey comes second and – again unfortunately for me – cycling is still third.


The adjustment is not perfect because we should also adjust for the amount of time spent in the activity since the longer people spend doing something the more likely it is that an injury could result.

Nevertheless, the message is clear for those of you thinking about taking your bike out for a spin on a lovely summer day – or trudging across the country: Be careful.

Jay L Zagorsky is economist and research scientist at the Ohio State University. A version of this commentary first appeared in The Conversation. Read it here.

Source: CNA/sl