Cyclists: why uneven roads and potholes are endangering your health

A HIGH-TECH bicycle which measures cyclists' exposure to potentially harmful vibrations from uneven road surfaces could be used to check the safety of cycle lanes and other routes. Back problems and nerve damage can occur as a result of riding on surfaces which are bumpy, potholed or cracked.

Work undertaken at Edinburgh Napier University's Transport Research Institute (TRI), which found that a large number of people in Scotland who cycle for leisure or as commuters were showing symptoms of a condition called Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS).

Date posted

26 August 2019

A HIGH-TECH bicycle which measures cyclists' exposure to potentially harmful vibrations from uneven road surfaces could be used to check the safety of cycle lanes and other routes.

Back problems and nerve damage can occur as a result of riding on surfaces which are bumpy, potholed or cracked.

Work undertaken at Edinburgh Napier University's Transport Research Institute (TRI), which found that a large number of people in Scotland who cycle for leisure or as commuters were showing symptoms of a condition called Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS).

It is characterised by numbness and a pins and needles sensation in the fingers, muscle weakness leading to back pain, and aching in the arms caused by damage to bones and joints.

It can also lead to significant impairment of nerves and blood vessels.

Although more commonly thought of as an industrial problem which affects people such as construction workers who use vibrating machinery, there are concerns that poorly maintained roads are contributing to cases among cyclists and even bus users.

Edinburgh Napier University tested the theory using a specially-designed 'data bike', which was fitted with a camera, sensors and computer to record vibration levels on Edinburgh streets.

They found cyclists were at risk of developing the condition after pedalling for as little as 16 minutes on the worst surfaces, such as cobbles.

The technology would be useful to public authorities such as councils, who maintain local roads, or the bodies such as Police Scotland who deploy officers on pedal bikes.

Professor Chris Oliver, a retired orthopaedic trauma surgeon who co-led the research, is set to discuss the findings at a conference in Edinburgh next month.

He will speak at the 54th UK Conference on Human Responses to Vibration, which is being held in the capital between September 24 to 26.

Prof Oliver, a keen cyclist who is known as the Cycling Surgeon on Twitter, said: "You can be exposed to vibration from many sources - a lot of industrial equipment can expose it to you. There's vibration from sitting on a bus. You can get back pain and damage to the discs in your spine, or if you get vibration through your hand it can damage your nerves in your hand - sometimes permanently.

"One of the things we did at Edinburgh Napier was to develop a bicycle that measures vibration transmitted from the road to your hands.

"We've shown that some road surfaces can cause toxic doses of vibration.

"The bicycle collects huge amounts of data."

Prof Oliver, who was also a professor of physical activity at Edinburgh University until his retirement in 2018, said he understood that Glasgow City Council and Police Scotland had both expressed an interest in using the technology.

Spokesmen for Police Scotland and Glasgow City Council said they were not using the technology at present and were unsure whether there were any plans to in future.

Prof Oliver said Scotland and the rest of the UK could learn a lot from other European countries where roads and cycle lanes are specifically designed to limit vibration.

He said: "The Dutch have whole books and guides on how to build a smooth road, but we don't have that kind of thing in the United Kingdom at all.

"If you phone up Edinburgh City Council and ask how smooth the roads are they'll say 'well, we fix the potholes'. That's not enough.

"We know that some road surfaces around Scotland cause hand-arm vibration syndrome - HAVS - and that's an industrial disease."

John Lauder, Deputy CEO of cycling charity Sustrans Scotland, said : “A high quality surface is key to attracting the widest range of people to choose to walk, cycle and wheel, thus funding programmes at Sustrans consider the ride quality of any design to be fundamental to the award of funding.

"It is important to be aware of risks with cycling in our towns and cities, but also to weigh these risks against the overall health benefits of active lifestyles versus the dangers of an increasingly sedentary lifestyle.”

A spokeswoman for Cycling Scotland added: “Potholes and uneven surfaces can have an impact on people cycling, in terms of both discomfort and safety, and it will be interesting to see the results from this research.

"We believe the benefits of cycling, particularly in terms of health and wellbeing, outweigh the risks of cycling on uneven road surfaces but the ideal is that our roads and cycle lanes are smooth and well maintained.”