Danger spots for cyclists on Pulau Ubin

Riders unfazed by death of tourist last Friday; few wear safety helmets
Elizabeth Soh Straits Times 30 Mar 11;

LESS than a week after a cyclist died from being flung off her bicycle on one of Pulau Ubin's steep slopes, cyclists are traversing the island, ignoring the safety signs.

More than 30 of them, some just metres apart, have been posted along some of the more notorious stretches of road, along with road humps and convex mirrors where there are blind corners.

'Steep slope ahead', 'Slow' or 'Dismount', the signs warn, but cyclists - whether or not they have heard of the death last Friday of Chinese tourist Nao Xue Ping, 45 - are unfazed.

They blaze down the island's hilly, twisty trails with which they are unfamiliar, and few, if any, wear helmets.

Madam Nao, who was also not wearing a helmet, lost control of her bicycle as she was going downhill along Jalan Batu Ubin. Flung forward, she died of head injuries on her way to hospital.

Two Singaporeans died in similar accidents there in 2006 and 2008; Ubin villagers count an average of 10 serious cycling accidents a month, all in the same hot spots - Jalan Batu Ubin, the stretch near Belatok Hut, Jalan Mamam, the road leading to Chek Jawa Reserve and Jalan Wat Siam or 'Cemetery Hill'. All have either steep slopes or abrupt bends.

Bicycle shop owners there say the accidents are almost always the same, caused by ignorance of the dangerous terrain and riders not wearing helmets.

'Most biking injuries occur when the cyclist slams on the brakes in panic while going down a slope fast,' said bike shop owner Sit Chin Chwee, 58, who showed how a sudden engagement of the front brakes would propel the rear of the bike into the air and pitch the rider off.

Operators in the five shops The Straits Times spoke to say that not even one in 10 of those renting bicycles rents helmets; neither do they pay attention to safety briefings by the shop owners.

Mr Harry Yeo, 45, who has run a bicycle rental shop there for more than a decade, said: 'I invested in more than 100 helmets two years ago, hoping to promote safety, but to date, not even five have been rented out.'

Little good came from his playing safety evangelist and handing helmets out free with bike rentals. He said: 'When I give them out free, they don't wear them and lose them. I give up.'

Emergency doctors say a helmet could have saved Madam Nao. Dr Kenneth Heng of Tan Tock Seng Hospital said a helmet can cut the risk of head injury by 88 per cent, and the risk of facial injury by 65 per cent.

But comfort seems to come first.

Polytechnic student Daniel Lee, 20, who cycles up Jalan Wat Siam because the trail there is 'the most exciting', said: 'When I wear the helmet, my head gets hot and sweaty and I can't enjoy the scenery, so what's the point?'

And there are the cyclists who think they take enough precautions.

Mr Albert Soo, 33, who was cycling without a helmet yesterday, said: 'I don't go too fast. To get down the slope, I dismount and push my bicycle when I need to.'

Road signs aside, the authorities have tried raising safety awareness by opening the 45ha Ketam Bike Park near the islands' Ketam Quarry. This park has trails with defined levels of difficulty and signs reminding riders to don helmets.

In February last year, the Land Transport Authority closed Jalan Wat Siam after two cyclists died from head injuries in falls on a steep slope there.

When The Straits Times visited the site, a barrier stood across it and signs barring unauthorised vehicles were up, but the road is still accessible to dare-devils who inch around the barrier.

Cycling associations have called for even more to be done to promote cycling safety on the island.

Mr Alvin Goh, the leader of cycling interest group Joyriders, said: 'It may seem like common sense to get off your bike if you are not fit or confident enough to tackle difficult roads, but many people do not. There has to be proper education and maybe even direct supervision in dangerous areas.'

Mr Kelvin Liew, the team manager of SMUX-tremists, the outdoor adventure wing of the Singapore Management University, advised those going off road on Ubin to wear helmets, gloves and knee guards and avoid the 'more technical' stretches of roads if they are beginners.

They should also carry mini first aid kits and the Ubin map, which has the contact number of the Ubin police post.

Additional reporting by Neo Wen Tong and Rocco Hu