Cycling through the jungle

Spain has Europe's highest rate of accidents involving cyclists Experts point to a lack of rules on road use and accuse drivers of a lack of respect

Members of the Catalonia Bicycle Club mourn the loss of a bike lane.
Members of the Catalonia Bicycle Club mourn the loss of a bike lane.GIANLUCA BATTISTA / EL PAÍS

Bridget Driscoll was a 44-year-old mother of two who was run over by a car in England. The "infernal machine" that cut her life short was moving at the "tremendous" speed of seven kilometers per hour, according to the forensic report. The driver, Arthur Edsall, had three weeks' experience as the pilot of the Roger-Benz vehicle, and he was acquitted because the incident was considered "an accidental death." Driscoll was the first British pedestrian to fall victim to those artifacts using internal combustion engines. But after the pedestrians came the cyclists. In 1899, a car hit a biker in New York, fracturing his leg. The driver spent a night in jail and was later released because the event was again considered "accidental."

From the very start, the car was considered a vision of the future and the bicycle a remnant of the rural past. Coexistence, given those circumstances, was bound to be difficult. In Spain it certainly is not peaceful. Víctor Cabedo, a professional rider for the Euskaltel team, was the latest cyclist to be killed during a training session in late September. Samuel Sánchez, a fellow teammate and a gold medalist at the Olympic Games, expressed his confusion: "You never know how to get it right. I had trained on that very same road in Castellón, where you see one car every three hours at the most. It seemed like a safe road because of the low traffic density, but there you have it..."

Sánchez has just returned from a training session in Asturias where he also had a traffic-related accident. "It was raining and the combination of oil, rain and the car in front of me which braked suddenly brought me to the ground. It was nothing, but still..."

The car is a vision of the future and the bicycle a remnant of the rural past

Whoever is most to blame, fear rules among professional riders who train on the roads and amateurs who do so for fun. In Spain, the number of accidental deaths involving drivers and cyclists rose 20 percent between 2009 and 2010 after years of decline, according to a road safety study by the Mapfre Foundation. Spain tops the European charts when it comes to road accidents involving cyclists: 3,600, a figure that is sometimes explained away by the rise in bicycle use in the cities. But this explanation "does not hold up," says Mario Arnaldo, president of the drivers' association Automovilistas Europeos Asociados.

"Fifty years ago there were also fewer cars in Spain, and yet now, with many more vehicles, fatalities have gone down. The volume of cars and bicycles is not the cause," Arnaldo argues.

Spain has approximately three million bicycle users, an infinitely lower number than in countries where two wheels reign supreme and the bike is considered a perfectly respectable and well-established means of transportation, not just something to be used for sports or entertainment. The Netherlands is the European champion when it comes to worshiping the bicycle.

"Over there, there is maximum respect for the bicycle rather than for the cyclist," says Sánchez of the Dutch nation.

"People honk there if you don't stay inside the cycling lane, and they never overtake you if it is not the right moment. [...] In Spain, there is still no awareness that a car can brake, wait and accelerate in just a few seconds. To cyclists, this same thing is extremely hard. And that's without mentioning the wake left by an overtaking car. Drivers don't know that this wake can actually pull you down," the Olympic champion adds.

The promising cyclist Antonio Martín was killed in 1994 when an overtaking truck hit him with its rearview mirror. A veteran driver puts it this way: "The problem I have with vans is that the rearview mirrors are placed at the same height as a cyclist or motorcyclist's head. When you overtake you have to think not only of the wake, but of the possibility of hitting them with the mirror."

"What needs to be resolved in Spain is the organization of bicycles on the roads," says Arnaldo. "We need to separate the sports and leisure activity from the urban transportation activity. But everything has piled up here. These days, a seven-year-old child could ride a bike on a freeway, even though this is a high-speed road.

"The desire to extend the use of the bicycle has resulted in extreme confusion. We need to foresee the different uses of the bicycle and take into account the fact that roads belong to everyone, but have different uses and therefore the rationale has to be different. We have to plan for bicycles in the city and on the roads just like we have to plan for the presence of horse riders, cattle or pedestrians, because nobody has exclusivity of use. And that is where Spanish legislation fails, not to mention the fact that there are as many different regulations as there are local ordinances. We need a unified circulation code," Arnaldo concludes.

The state's DGT road-safety authority is working on the reform of road circulation legislation that could make the helmet mandatory inside city limits, as is already the case on general roads. Cycling associations oppose this move because they feel this would discourage people from using bikes in cities. But nearly a third of cyclist fatalities in 2010 occurred on city and secondary roads, where helmets might have prevented some of these deaths. Therein lies the debate. Arnaldo feels that "we have to avoid the interest groups, whoever they may be, and apply educational and organizational criteria."

Bicycles are in style, but awareness has not kept pace. "Once I had the experience of having to ride away like crazy when a truck driver got out of his cabin with a wrench after we criticized his attitude on the road," recalls a former professional cyclist. "We had to sprint away because things looked ugly, and for a few days we did not go back on that road, in case the truck driver used it frequently."

Cycle lanes constitute the natural alternative, but funding is the trouble. "Every kilometer is very expensive to build; the best example is London, where each kilometer cost the equivalent of 170,000 euros, and right now finding financing is a difficult task. A nationwide network of cycle lanes would clearly be the ideal solution, but an expensive one."

For the meantime, cars and bikes must coexist and the rise in accidents in Spain cannot be blamed solely on four-wheel machines. "It's true that sometimes cyclists don't know how to ride properly on a road," Samuel Sánchez admits. July is the month with the highest number of cyclist fatalities in Spain, and data shows that secondary roads are in fact no safer than major highways.

Solutions are complex. Rather than increase the number of rules, associations encourage creating greater awareness. But reality and desire often clash. The truth is, cars are the kings of the road, and bicycles, tractors, horses and cattle are just obstacles in their way.

"Sometimes we avoid certain roads that would be good for training because of their danger level or because of angry truck drivers," says Sánchez, whose Olympic medal is still no guarantee of getting respect on his bicycle in Spain.