Bicycle fatality stats in Washington highways report

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Sometimes statistics can be helpful in explaining problems and finding solutions; other times they can only confuse the issues.

The latter is the case in the annual “Measures, Markers and Mileposts” report (.pdf) issued by the Washington state Department of Transportation. The 100-plus page document gives in-depth performance reports for highway maintenance, pavement conditions, and environmental control.

But I found the 2 pages (pages 60-61) devoted to pedestrian and bicycle safety to be sorely lacking. The two tables of bicycle fatality statistics were drawn from federal and state databases and were offered with little explanation.


For instance, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data was used to determine that Washington state's bicycle fatality rate never fell below the top half of the states for fewest fatalities in the past 3 years.

Washington ranked 10th best in 2004, 25th best in 2005, and 11th best in 2006. The ranking is based on population; Washington 7 bike fatalities give it a 1.09 bike deaths per 1 million population.

No explanation as to why the rate shot up in 2005. Also, wouldn't a fatality-per-bicycle-mile be a better measurement? I'm sure Washington's residents don't lay down as many miles as those in Florida or Arizona.


The report notes that 60% of bicycle fatalities between 1999 and 2006 occurred in urban areas. The locations and actions of bicyclists in those fatalities are charted, but without assessing whether the motorist or bicycle rider was at fault.

Actions of bicyclists in fatalities

Crossing roadway – 35%
Riding with traffic – 27%
Riding against traffic – 11%
Cyclist turned into path of vehicle – 10%
Fell into traffic – 1%
All other actions – 7%
Unknown – 9%

The report does explain that “riding with traffic” includes cases where a motorist was following too closely, drivers were exceeding safe speeds, and cyclists were doored. Amazingly, the “cyclist turned into path of vehicle” is not paired with a “vehicle turned into path of cyclist” statistic.

Good news

There are a couple of positives in the report for bicyclists. One is the tendency for highway and traffic engineers to improve, connect or re-connect grid systems. That type of street layout has benefits over the use of thoroughfares and cul-de-sacs in urban areas.

The study also observes that reducing vehicle speeds on urban arterials can reduce collisions with pedestrians and bicyclists and reduce the severity of injury.

On a concrete level, the report also refers to the state Prioritized Project List (.pdf) for 88 pedestrian and bicycle safety projects and 101 safe route to school projects. Combined, the two lists seek $79 million in state grants; during a two-year period (2007-2009), the state has $18 million available from state and federal funds.

Going back to 2005, however,  the report states that the legislature has funded nearly 100 pedestrian and bicycle safety programs and safe route to school  programs across the state.

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