Bike deaths have rebounded, and part of the solution is more biking

December 11, 2017

by Michael Andersen, PlacesForBikes staff writer

On Thursday, Outside Magazine published a powerful personal story from its bike test director, Aaron Gulley, of being hit by a potentially distracted driver.

In the past few years, I’ve told my wife, Jen, that as many people as I see texting while driving, it seems almost inevitable that I’d eventually get hit. I routinely watch cars piloted by drivers who are staring down into their laps as they veer into the other lane or off the road. For a while, I started counting vehicles with distracted drivers that passed me. On one road ride a year ago in Santa Fe, in the first hour I tallied 37 people using their cell phones at the wheel before I gave up on the task. I’ve since scaled back my road riding in favor of gravel and mountain, in part because of this threat.

And yet, I was hit on a mountain bike while pedaling the half-mile stretch of asphalt between two trails.

Thankfully, Gulley survived intact. His account of the aftermath, and of his entirely normal but terribly unfair uneasiness about road biking ever since that day, is a gut-level reminder that American roads are unacceptably dangerous.

That said, it’s worth keeping that danger in historical perspective. We’ve found that charts can be helpful. Here’s one of the most important:

Source: FARS.

That’s a three-year rolling average of the number of bike deaths on U.S. streets. As you can see, it ebbs and flows, but the last five years have shown a disturbing upward trend that may bear a suspicious correlation to smartphone usage.

The trend is similar for people killed while walking, a count that hit an all-time low in 2009 but has since surged to a 26-year high.

The rebound in traffic fatalities isn’t nearly as likely to hit people while they’re driving. But that also makes the contrast with walking and biking all the more glaring.

Source: FARS.

At one point in his piece, Gulley links to an old post on our blog, published in 2014 using data through 2012 (the latest available at the time), in which we argued that increased biking, not increased risk per bike trip, was behind any increase in the number of people dying on bikes. At the time, this was true.

Is it still true? It’s a little hard to say, because there is no good annual measurement of the amount of biking in the United States. The closest we can get is the number of people who report having biked to work most days over the previous week. Broadly speaking, that figure has been rising during years of expensive gasoline and flat during years of cheap gasoline:

Source: American Community Survey.

Combine that chart with the first one, and we can make a rough guess about the risk of a bike trip over time:

Sources: FARS and ACS.

So bike trips are likely getting somewhat more dangerous in the last few years. And, also, bike transportation is (like the rest of American road transportation) unacceptably dangerous.

But as we think about this — and as millions of people like Gulley make personal decisions about their biking habits — here is another essential trend to keep in mind: biking has become much, much safer over the long term as Americans have started biking more.

Source: NPTS/NHTS.

Unfortunately, this chart ends in 2009 — which we know was an unusually good year for bike safety. That’s because the best long-term data we have on the amount of biking in the United States comes from the National Household Transportation Survey, which takes its snapshots only every seven years or so. Fortunately, information from the 2016 NHTS is due in the next few months, so we’ll be able to update this chart soon.

Still, one thing is clear: for biking to be as dangerous today as it was in 1977, bike fatalities would need to quadruple. They haven’t.

When Gulley contacted us before writing his post, we discussed the above trends. In the end, though, his post simply linked to our 2014 post and said, incorrectly, that we don’t think the risk of biking has increased in the last several years. Whatever the reason that an accurate version of our position didn’t make it into the Outside article, we don’t want any ambiguity: The risk of a bike trip has probably risen in the last few years, and this is bad.

It’s especially bad because most traffic deaths could be prevented by better public policy, and we as a country know exactly what policies would prevent them. First among them: slower traffic speeds, especially on local streets.

If we want safer streets, there are many countries we can look to as examples. As recently as 1990, streets in France, Germany and Israel were significantly more dangerous than U.S. streets; streets in Sweden, the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada were about the same as ours. But over the last generation, that’s changed. All of those streets are now less dangerous than ours — in Sweden and the UK, less than half as dangerous.

People trying to solve problems should learn from what works.

Here’s what works: slower traffic (enforced, where appropriate, with reliable, unbiased speed cameras that everyone knows about); streets whose design prioritizes safety over speed; and also more people biking and walking.

That last item depends on safe, comfortable, intuitive networks of sidewalks, crosswalks and bike lanes. That’s why accelerating the construction of the country’s many local biking networks is a core strategy of PeopleForBikes.

The more of those networks that we as a country can build, the more of us will avoid the single most physically dangerous thing we can do with our bikes: letting them collect dust.

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