So how safe or not is it to ride a bicycle in traffic in the U.S.? What kinds of crashes happen most frequently? It might surprise you to know that it’s not that easy to find out. Data are not always complete or up to date, and much depends on how officers classify and describe incidents. Part of the reason for the lack of data is that the federal government does not require states to meet benchmarks for bicyclist and pedestrian deaths, only for car passengers.
Partly for that reason, the League of American Bicyclists worked from 2011 to 2013 to learn as much as they could about bicycling fatalities in the U.S. The results were recently published under the same title as the project: Every Bicyclist Counts.
So what did they find out?
1) The most common fatal crash involved the cyclist being hit from behind.
The single most surprising and important finding was this: from among the 13 types of collision that the LAB tracked, the one responsible for far and away the most bicyclist fatalities — 40% — resulted from being hit from behind. That’s about as much as the next five categories of collision combined. These are usually crashes involving a car attempting to pass, thus the need for enforcement of Virginia’s new 3-foot passing law. An RTD article a few weeks ago pointed out that the law may need to be supplemented by a change in the rules about crossing a solid yellow line; unless the motorist is going to creep along behind a cyclist for miles, it has to be okay (when safe, of course) to cross that line to give 3 feet of space.
2) Urban arterial roads are the most dangerous.
The combination of speed and traffic makes these roads the most dangerous for cyclists. Think Broad Street, Laburnum, Forest Hill. These roads are designed mainly with one thing in mind: moving a lot of car traffic. As noted above, the number of deaths from collisions at intersections and elsewhere is about 50-50.
3) Driver inattention and recklessness are a problem.
In cases where police reports included an additional factor in the accident for the motorist, 42% noted that the driver was operating their vehicle in a careless or inattentive manner.
All sorts of things can distract you from the road. A police offer in L.A. recently killed a cyclist by veering into a bike lane while he was typing into his on-board computer and was not charged with any crime because entering information into the computer is considered within his duties (see article here).
So, at the risk of stating the obvious, when you drive a car, minimize distractions. When you’re traveling the speed that our roads tend to encourage, a lot can happen in the two seconds you took to glance down at your phone or find a radio station. And remember, texting while driving is now against the law.
As a cyclist it can help to use lights and clothing to be as visible as possible, and to position yourself in the lane so that you’re right in drivers’ field of vision.
4) Riding the wrong way really is dangerous.
For cyclists the most common additional factor was riding the wrong way on a street. Some people have the idea that riding on the opposite side is safer because you can see cars coming toward you. But cars turning onto that road are a lot less likely to see you because they’re not expecting someone coming from that direction.
One thing not mentioned in the LAB report is vehicle speed. In most cases that’s obviously not something that police reports can include because they arrive after the fact, although it can be implied in the “reckless” category.
But it’s well-established (and fairly intuitive) that the slower a vehicle is traveling, the less likely it is that someone hit by that vehicle will die. A report from humantransport.org cites two different studies about the chances of death for pedestrians relative to vehicle speed. Both studies find that the chance of pedestrian death at 20 mph is 5%. How much would you think it jumps when the vehicle is traveling 30 mph? 10%? 20? The odds jump to at least 37% according to one study, and to 45% in the other. At 40 mph it jumps to above 80%.
This is no doubt one factor that makes urban arterials dangerous. Their design and speed limits encourage 40+ mph driving. But even local streets in Richmond often have limits of 25, which effectively translates into average speeds closer to 30 in many cases.
So, here’s a radical idea that I will pursue further in the follow-up to this post: within the city, what if we just slowed everyone (in cars) down? That would help reduce injury and death for motorists as well. For many this will seem unthinkable, but that attests to a mentality that privileges speed/time over safety.