Traffic-related bicycling deaths on the rise in many states; bicycle advocacy groups dispute results

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A report by a national highway safety association is shining a spotlight on the increase in bicyclist deaths in traffic.

Newspapers and other media outlets are reporting that bicycle traffic deaths have been on the rise since hitting a 10-year-low in 2009, a fact that many bicycle advocates already have been tracking. Reports from California and Florida were particularly startling, since California leads the nation overall in bicycle deaths, while Florida leads per capita.

coverThere is no measurement for bicyclist deaths per miles ridden.

The report, Bicyclist Safety, published by the Governors Highway Safety Association finds that bicycle traffic deaths rose 16% from 2010 (621) to 2012 (722).

Those results are closing in line with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration which reported in November 2013 that  reported a 6.5% increase in bicycle traffic deaths between 2011 and 2012.

Some conclusions

The governors report researched and written by Dr. Allan Williams concluded that “lack of helmet use and alcohol impairment have been and continue to be major contributing factors in bicyclist deaths.”

Although states often rely on education and enforcement to improve bicycle safety, he goes on to write that “physical separation” is preferable when bikes and motor vehicles use the road.

” … the goal is to reduce the time or distance in which bicyclists are exposed to risk via marked bike lanes, bicycle boulevards, separate bicycle traffic signals, and other techniques. These treatments can be supplemented by methods to slow motor vehicles down, and roadway lighting and warning signs to increase awareness of the presence of bicyclists.”

Williams relied on the national Fatality Analysis Reporting System to determine that 17% of fatally injured bicycle riders were wearing helmets and 65% were not. Helmet use was not known in 18% of the cases.

Williams also reported that from 2007 to 2011, 25% of fatally injured bicyclists had blood alcohol content above 0.08%, which is the threshold for drunken driving for motor vehicles in the US.

Update: Reaction

The reaction to the report by bicycle advocacy groups has been unanimously negative.

The League of American Bicyclists, for instance, points out that 16% increase from 2010 to 2012 comes after a long period of declining fatalities. It more importantly points out that, over 30 years, the number of bicycle trips has increased as the fatalities decreased.

Using official data from the US Department of Transportation, the total number of bike trips more than tripled from 1,272 million in 1977 to 4,081 million in 2009. During the same period, the number of cyclist fatalities fell from 922 in 1977 to 628 in 2009, a decrease of 32%. Taking into account the increased level of cycling, the cyclist fatality rate fell by a dramatic 79%. In short, cycling has become roughly four times safer per bike trip over the past three decades.


Meanwhile, the Alliance for Biking and Walking reports that although California may have had the most bicycling fatalities, the number of people who ride bicycles in the state is higher than most other states. That means the rate of bicycle deaths is less.

Our data, pulled from the 2014 Benchmarking Report, show that California had a lower than average bicyclist fatality rate based on three-year averages from 2009 to 2011. An average of 104.3 bicyclists died on California streets each year, which amounts to 6.3 bicyclist fatalities per 10,000 biking commuters. On the other hand, states that seem perfectly safe for biking according to the GHSA report actually have pretty high fatality rates. Mississippi only had an average of 7 bicyclist fatalities per year from 2009 to 2011, but that works out to 70.4 fatalities per 10,000 bicyclists. Based on the rate, it’s clear that Mississippi faces some more safety hurdles than California.

State by state

Here’s the state by state chart for bicycle fatalities in traffic from the Bicycle Safety report.

State by state chart; click for larger view

State by state chart; click for larger view

More stories:

Louisiana No. 2 for bicycle deaths per capita

Florida ranks high in bicycle deaths

Illinois had the 5th most bicycle fatalities

Rise in US bicycle fatalities concerns safety advocates

Cyclists deaths on the rise in California

Meanwhile, Washington state — the No. 1 bicycle friendly state — has issued an advisory for motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists on staying safe as daylight saving time ends on Sunday (turn clocks back one hour).  From the Washington State Department of Transportation:

Pedestrians and Bicyclists

  • Be seen – Wear bright or reflective outerwear, carry a flashlight, add lights to your bike or helmet and cross at lighted intersections when possible.
  • Make eye contact – Know that the driver is aware of your presence so keep hats, hoods and umbrellas clear of your vision.
  • Walk and bike where it’s safest – Use sidewalks and bike lanes when they are available, and if not, walk at the edge of the road facing traffic, and ride with the flow of traffic.
  • Cross the roadway at intersections – Crossing in mid-block, or jaywalking, is a contributing circumstance in pedestrian collisions. This applies in parking lots and garages.

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    • George Winters on October 31, 2014 at 7:09 am
    • Reply

    The headline misses the relevant and useful parts of the study while emphasizing a common miss use of statistical data. The 16% increase noted focuses on a short blip instead of the 3 1/2 decades of steadily declining fatality rate. 2010 is the historical low since 1975. There was a much bigger increase comparing 2005 with 2003, but the trend has still continued down. In any population data statistic, when a point is measured at an extreme low, the most probable next measurement will be higher.

    A more relevant story in the data is the fact that comprehensive use statistics are so unavailable. It is very relevant to know that middle age men are especially at risk and to know that use of alcohol and bicycling has a bad risk correlation. Along with that information it would be nice to have more data about actual use. There is a presumed long term trend of increased bike use, but most of the data is tenuous because it is more difficult to measure smaller parts of a population. Automobile use statistics are much better because the population sample is higher, there are lots of financial incentives for knowing details about use, and accident reporting is much better. It is an unfortunate reality that details of bicycle accidents are often missing from police reports and medical institution reports.

    Is the report trying to scare us away from bicycling, or just showing us important ways to be safer? The headline gives me pause to have doubts about the report.

    • Trucker Mark on September 20, 2015 at 8:00 pm
    • Reply

    Bicycle deaths rose again in 2013 according to the NHTSA Division of the US-DOT, from 722 in 2012 to 743 in 2013. Now bicycle mileage would be mighty hard to ascertain since hardly any bike rider keeps track of theirs but total US bicycle deaths in 2013 were only a little over 2% of US total highway deaths too. In 2013 the US median bicycle death rate per million population rose above the 2012 rate too, even though a few States marginally decreased their bicycle fatality rates such as Colorado, which was down by about 3/10ths of a point between 2012 and 2013.

    Here is a true story about interstate heavy truck safety. For many years when the ICC was a Federal agency their standard measurement for the trucking industry was number of fatalities per 100 million miles of operation, with 1979 being the worst year ever according to that rate. As a result of that fatality high rate for 1979 the trucking industry instituted a major national safety overhaul with increased driver training and lots of other safety improvements and by 2005 the trucking industry fatality rate was down by 80%, which should have been cause for celebration, right?

    Not on your life, as Public Citizen and other auto-driver groups that hate trucks have since the ICC was disbanded wanted to get rid of the longtime trucking industry fatality rate per distance operated by the industry and change the measurement standard to total fatalities instead, as the sheer size of the trucking industry nationally is up by more than triple since 1979, so even though the industry achieved an 80% reduction in the fatality rate that is just plain not good enough according to them.

    Meanwhile, according to an extensive study of every car/truck injury or fatality accident between 1970 and 2005 the involved car driver was exclusively at-fault 72.4% of the time, just as another recent study found that bike riders killed in accidents with motor vehicles were exclusively at-fault 70% of the time too, which in either case means that there is only so much that truckers can do to improve truck safety operating around cars, as well as means that there is only so much that government and motorists can do to improve roadway safety for bicyclists too, as bicyclists in-general are not terribly good at preventing accidents when riding on the highway.

    Here are the 2013 NHTSA bike study statistics if you are openminded-enough to read them:

    Have you seen this news item from Seattle where they are moving away from road diets and bike lanes immediately adjacent to traffic in-favor of more spending on improving off-street bike routes as their assertion is that many bike riders simply lack the skill necessary to operate safely in close proximity to higher-speed traffic in narrow bike lanes adjacent to traffic?

    Just remember that loaded 18-wheel trucks take about 5 times the distance to stop from 30 mph that a bicycle ridden by an advanced–skill rider takes and that 99% of bicycles don’t have working brake lights which are required of other roadway users which would reduce following vehicle stopping distance by at least the 1-2 seconds that it takes the average motorist following a bike to actually see that any vehicle without working brake lights is stopping, and we will all be a lot better off too.

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