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Complete street in Austin, Texas caters to pedestrians, cyclists and motorists.

The Good News About the Bad News On American Bicycle Deaths: It Isn't Quite As Bad As It Sounds

Cycling deaths soar! Bicycle fatalities balloon! The world is coming to an end! Well, actually not the world, unless, of course, you're one of the 722 American cyclists killed in 2012, representing a 16% jump over 2010. Yet, amidst the sad statistics found in the Governors Highway Safety Association study are some nuggets of good news.

When the Governors Highway Safety Association issued a study recently on bicycle deaths in America, it rubbed salt into an already festering wound, frankly pissing off a lot of cycling advocates who criticized its methodology and blame placing. Citing the years 2010-2012, it noted that death by bicycle spiked upwards 16%.

As headline hungry Internet journalists - and I use that term loosely - are want to do, the study's two key findings became the centerpiece of most stories: two-thirds of all fatally-injured riders weren't wearing helmets and the percentage of riders with high blood alcohol content (BAC) has changed little over the last several decades, while it has dropped significantly among motorists.

As critics of the study note, the GHSA says little if anything about need for safer cycling infrastructure - the word 'infrastructure' is used just four times in the study, two of them in the references section - and leaves the impression that it is the cyclists that are the ones at fault: the idiot was drunk and/or not wearing a helmet. What isn't pointed out in the study is that most of the accidents that take place on urban streets happen at intersections where there are virtually no measures taken to protect highly vulnerable bike riders from inattentive drivers. The helmet issue remains an unresolved debate within the cycling community itself. Few riders in Holland wear helmets, but they are usually segregated from large vehicular traffic. Collisions between cyclists are rarely fatal. Collisions with cars and lorries usually are and it's the bike rider that dies, helmet or not.

The hysteria over the 'spike' in bicycle deaths nationwide from the 621 in 2010 to the 722 in 2012 overlooks the fact, Streetblog points out, that "buried deep in the report… GHSA notes that the annual death rate of cyclists is actually 'among the lowest since 1975,' when U.S. DOT’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System first started compiling this data:

The highest annual total (1,003) occurred in 1975. Yearly deaths averaged 933 from 1975 to 1979, 889 in the 1980s, 792 in the 1990s, and 696 from 2000 to 2012. The 621 deaths in 2010 were the lowest in the 38 years of FARS.

Further, notes Bike Law, while the "overall trend of bicycle fatalities has decreased 30% (965 to 677) from 1980 to 2011," a more important statistic than the sheer numbers of deaths is the number of people killed as a percentage of all people riding a bicycle.

For example, while the GHSA study called out California for its relatively high number of cycling deaths, in fact, it is one of the safest states in which to ride. Between 2009-2011 an annual average of 6.3 fatalities occurred per 10,000 bicycle commuters. In contrast, the 7 annual cycling deaths in Mississippi results in a death rate per 10,000 riders of a whopping 70.4. Where would you prefer to ride given those odds?

Bike Law also observes…

"The report leaves us with unanswered questions: For example, does the increase in numbers mean more people are riding, or are a greater percentage of cyclists being killed? The report acknowledges the question but does not have the data to answer it. Does the enormous increase in percentage of adult death mean we are doing a better job educating children on bicycle safety, that drivers have become more vigilant in areas where more children are riding, or that fewer children are riding bikes? Regardless, any increase in crash-related deaths is unacceptable and we must keep working to reverse the trend."

The GHSA study does urge more driver and rider education, urging "information about relevant laws and best practices regarding bicycle and motor vehicle interactions should be covered in driver manuals, driver education courses, and written tests."

They conclude by recommending communities adopt a 'Complete Streets' strategy that provides safe, shared access to city streets and roads for pedestrians, cyclists and motorist alike.

Posted By: Bill Moore [12-Nov-2014]