Isn’t it dangerous?

This, of course, is one of the first questions people ask when they find out that a defenceless woman like me is trying to ride her bicycle around the world.

And no, it’s not. Not at all.

I don’t know exactly what’s running through people’s minds when they ask me this. Maybe they’re under the impression that the rest of the world is full of thieves, murderers and rapists, or that I’ll be lynched by an anti-British mob as soon as I set foot out of Europe. None of this is true. Since I left the UK the few traumatic experiences I’ve had have been entirely self-inflicted (getting wet feet; accidentally stabbing myself with my multitool), and almost everyone I’ve met has welcomed me to their country, fed me, invited me into their home within minutes of meeting me, given me presents, put me in touch with friends and family further down the road, and generally looked after me to an extent that puts us cold-hearted Britons to shame. The world is, I have come to believe, a very good place.

But in case you’re still not convinced, or think that I’ve just got lucky so far, let me give you some more rational arguments.

According to this Telegraph article, I am more likely to be murdered, raped or robbed at home than I am abroad, and going by the statistics I’ve been able to find with a cursory google search (and echoing one of the safety talks at the RGS’s Explore event last year), of all the Britons who die abroad every year (and excluding those who die of natural causes), the great majority perished in road accidents (with drowning, and falling from balconies also featuring prominently).

But that’s no comfort, you may argue, when one considers that the majority of my waking hours are spent in close proximity to moving traffic. Sure, I’m unlikely to be be murdered in my tent at night, but the probability of my being run over by a car during the day is still worryingly high.

Well, perhaps. But you’re forgetting that for the past three years I’ve been working as a cycle courier, which is regularly recognized as being one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. And although I used to protest that it really wasn’t that bad, I did spend a great deal of my time quivering with either rage or fear after being cut up, knocked off, shouted at, rammed, threatened, stalked, and generally terrorized by drivers. I ended up in hospital several times, though thankfully I was lucky enough to avoid breaking any bones, unlike many of my colleagues. Several times a year, word goes out among the London couriers that there’s to be yet another fundraiser to help support one of our comrades who’s been injured on the job and needs help to pay his rent while he recovers. A couple of weeks after I left the UK, a chap I used to work with was hit by a lorry at Vauxhall Cross, and dragged underneath it for several metres. He survived, but only came out of hospital a couple of weeks ago, and probably won’t ride a bike again. There hasn’t been a death for seven years, but that’s no guarantee there won’t be another one tomorrow. Looking back, it was often a brutal and frightening way of life, much as I used to love it.

So far on this trip I’ve been hit by a car just once. That was in south London, on Day 7. (No damage done. The driver turned left in front of me, without indicating or checking his mirrors, knocked me over, and apologized profusely when he realized what had happened.)

I’ve decided that I will ride through Balochistan, by the way. It all fell into place as I was cycling through the rush hour traffic on the motorway leading into İstanbul the other week, with lorries swishing past me, far too close and far too fast, thinking about how worried my parents would be if they could see me now. The main danger on this trip is the traffic, make no mistake. There have been three abductions of Westerners in Balochistan in the last three years. Two of them were in 2009, which is now some time ago, but let’s call that an average of one per year. Between 2000 and  2010, the average number of cyclists killed on the roads of London every year was 15.9. For some reason that no one has been able to figure out, an unusually high proportion of these were women in their twenties and thirties – like me. And, given that I used to spend around 50 hours per week riding my bike in London, surely I was even more at risk than most.

I’m not trying to argue that I’m invincible. No no no.

Let’s be realistic – there’s certainly a chance that I’ll be hit by a vehicle at some point over the next few years. But there was a much higher risk of that happening when I was riding my bike around London all week. Perhaps, rather than worrying about how dangerous my trip is, we should all be breathing a sigh of relief that I’ve got myself out of the fire and back into the frying pan.

Leave a Comment

6 Comments

  1. Lee
    Posted December 18, 2011 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    *like*

  2. Posted December 19, 2011 at 3:57 am | Permalink

    I agree :) I am no Pollyanna, but, whenever I’ve moved out of my comfort zone for a bit of an adventure (on a far tamer scale than you) I’m always amazed by how lovely people are. I believe in the intrinsic goodness of most of our species and won’t be put off by the odd bad apple. Happy cycling!

  3. Posted December 19, 2011 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    I get asked this all the time and it drives me crazy! Like you I usually feel safer on the road than I do riding around at home (Melbourne)… and as anyone who has done a big trip before knows, there’s something about a bike traveller that seems to bring out the kindness of strangers.

  4. Jamie
    Posted December 19, 2011 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

    Agree with you on the general point that the world is not as dangerous as perceived by non travellers. Agree with you that it was probably more dangerous working as a cycle courier in London and like the frying pan/fire comment. Fits perfectly and a good ending.

    However as a general rule I am not convinced that, for most people, who didn’t have a dangerous job like you, travelling improves your safety. The Telegraph article is lightweight and does not present even remotely enough evidence to justify its headline “It’s still safer to travel than to stay at home” or that “the risk of being murdered, raped or robbed is still far higher at home”. No sources given here. Also, are we talking about the fact that you are more likely to be murdered in the 50 weeks a year that the average UK resident (say for example) is in the UK, rather than the 2 weeks of the year abroad. Well of course you are! Or are we talking about per day in the UK at home versus per day travelling? And a disproportionate number of murders and perhaps rapes probably occur in certain places like Croydon, Moss Side, Anfield etc. If you are not from one of those places then the conclusion that staying at home is more dangerous may not be correct.

    You cite three abductions of Westerners in Balochstan vs more deaths in London but surely the amount of westerners in London and the amount of cycled miles is massively higher than in Balochstan, so you need to know how many peopled cycled though Balochstan vs abductions to get a more useful idea of how dangerous it really is. If only six westerners went there in all that time, obviously you wouldn’t go! If it was six hundred thousand, the risk is probably one not to worry about.

    Based to a lesser extent on my own personal experience travelling and to a greater extent on what I’ve read online and it books (so something between anecdotal and a statistical analysis) I would guess that per day travelling you are more likely to be a victim of a crime than per day at home, certainly where things like pickpocketing, petty theft of belongings and scamming are concerned. I do agreee with you though in that bad driving and traffic in general seems to be more of a menace for a traveller that things that are more perceived as supposed travel risks, like really violent crime, being attacked by a wild animal or being kidnapped.

    I am enjoying your blogs and I wish you the best.

  5. Fozdog
    Posted December 24, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    Okay. I can concede it’s not as dangerous as everyone thinks but it’s unfair to make a comparison to cyclists in London. There are hundreds of couriers if not thousands, like we discussed over a pint, and even more cyclists. The 16 or so people who die every year is a small proportion of the amount of cyclists and of the amount of journeys made by bike.

    Whilst I agree that driving on foreign roads where the average goods driver won’t have seen many cycle tourers does have more inherent risks than the purely the country you’re cyclic through but there just aren’t as many Britons travelling through Baluchistan, mainly on the advice of the FCO and well, there just aren’t as many all inclusive deals on the Iran/Pakistan borders, and this makes the proportion a lot higher as the people who were abducted (this doesn’t include anything else that might happen to you) weren’t travelling by bike I assume.

    Having said this, and as a courier I should know, I do often wonder whether I’ll be comin home in one piece and I sometimes get very paranoid when I’m cycling around. I don’t always feel vulnerable but I highly doubt you have any of these feelings when you clip in and set off on another long ride. I have every confidence you’ll be fine, just as you were for three years on the road in London but you can’t blame people for asking the question or getting worried. Just watch out for the wild dogs in those forests.

  6. Posted January 10, 2012 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

    Love your writing. Love it.

    Having done a little cycle-touring and London cycling myself, I think you’re far safer where you are than couriering in London. In countries where road rules are non-existent, drivers are generally far more aware of what’s going on around them on the road and definitely far more open to unexpected things happening – including a foreigner turning up on a fully-loaded bicycle. As I’m sure you’ve noticed.

    As for Baluchistan, you’re not encumbered by a political agenda or tied to any NGO, so you’re hardly likely to be a target for those who need human bargaining chips. In any case, according to my mate who cycled through in ’08, the Iranians will probably give you a lift and the Pakistanis will almost definitely give you a permanent security detail.

    There still a few misconceptions floating about in the comments above, despite your efforts, but I’d choose biking the Middle East over biking central London every time.

    Keep up the great articles! Safe onward travels!