Statistically speaking, I’ve always been a number cruncher. Recently, I was sitting with my wife at lunch. She told me how nice it was to have me at home and not cycling over the past few weeks. Unfortunately, I’ve been sidelined with a back injury. The upside: I have a zero percent chance of getting hurt while cycling. Well, when I say “hurt” I really mean getting maimed, injured or killed.
So, I appreciated her wifely concern. To get around her concern, many times I would ride on my rollers instead of on the road. This was mostly if I was pressed for time or the weather was bad. She always told me how dangerous it can be on the roads, but deep inside, I didn’t really want believe her. I enjoyed cycling outside too much to ever give it up completely. So I began to think statistically, how safe am I out there on the road? Is there anything I can do to decrease my risk of accident or even death? My inquisition began to feel like a quest of discovery. A way to cheat death.
I’ve been an avid cyclist now for about four years and I wouldn’t consider myself a recreational cyclist, but rather an accomplished, savvy roadie who knows all the rules. I even raced in the 50 and over class. I certainly feel that I’ve been immune to potential ‘vehicular’ accidents. It happens to the other guy right? Somehow, us professional roadie type think we are immune to such accidents. Some may even believe that inattentiveness and laziness can also get you killed. This is even if you are obeying the law. I would always say, yes my chances of getting into an accident are higher than staying at home, but if I’m careful, ride in groups and avoid certain roads or riding at certain times of the day, my chances go down . . . don’t they? Unfortunately, accidents continue to happen and cyclists continue to get killed. Surely, these are incompetent drivers and some careless cyclists, right?
To get a better understanding of cycling accidents and death, we have to look at the general statistics. Cycling deaths account for about 2 % of all motor vehicle accidents. (1) This has been a general trend for the past ten years. That’s about 2 people getting killed everyday on the bike. Cycling accidents have fluctuated between 68,000 to 40,000 over the past 20 years. Unfortunately, many cycling accidents are never reported.
Can we look at the statistics of cycling accidents and use this information to eliminate the risk of an accident altogether? Certainly, we should be able to decrease the risk of accident or death?
To do this, we have to look closely at the statistics and then integrate the those lessons into our cycling routine. We can begin by looking at fatality rates in general. Unfortunately, fatality rates are not decreasing, but increasing. How can this be? Don’t we have more awareness, safe passing laws and more bicycle lanes? According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) although overall total number of vehicular accidents have steadily decreased from 2002-2011, the total percentage of bicycle fatalities have steadily increased in that 9 year period. (2) This means that overall accident numbers have fallen when it comes to vehicular accidents, but the number of people dying on the bike have not.
And what is it like over in Europe? It’s actually a little worse in the U.K. I thought that since there are more cyclists and cycle friendly countries in the UK, the fatality rate would be much lower than here in the U.S. A recent road safety report by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (ROSPA) released last month in August 2014, the number of fatalities of cyclists killed compared to overall casualties (1, 713) was 6%, much higher than the 2% reported here in the U.S. However, when you look at it another way, out of the 19,438 people who were injured or seriously injured in a bicycle accident only 109 where killed. Statistically speaking that is 0.56%. (3,4) The number of cycling deaths also decreased by 8% from 2012 to 2013 (118 to 109). Unfortunately, there are still between 100 and 120 people getting killed very year in Europe over the past 6 years. This is still significantly lower than car occupant deaths (46%), Pedestrian deaths (23%) and motorcycle deaths (19%) in the Britain.
“The number of pedal cyclists killed decreased by 8 per cent from 118 in 2012 to 109 in 2013. However, pedal cyclist fatalities have fluctuated between roughly 100 and 120 over the last six years; thus it is not possible to tell whether this latest change is simply a one-off fluctuation or part of a longer term trend.” (4)
Statistically speaking, even our friends in the U.K. realize something is afoot. Seriously? We have to do better. We can now begin to look at the statistics a little closer. Sometimes, statistics can give you a better understanding of the situation at hand. Just like flying. Statistically, you are more likely to be killed driving than you are flying. However, when you fly, if you do crash, it’s more likely to kill ya. Not reassuring, I know. The thing to remember is that only about 2% of all traffic fatalities involve cyclists here in the U.S. And there are some accidents that don’t always lead to death. Some are survivable.
With the help of statistics, we can see the things that cause accidents and death and hopefully how to avoid them. We already know that about 37% of all traffic/bicycle fatalities involving alcohol. As strange as it may seem, this may also be alcohol consumed by the cyclist, the data doesn’t differentiate. So, we can firstly say: Don’t drink and cycle. This is probably more important to say, if you live in the U.K. since there is a pub literally on every corner.
Here are some general points involving bicycle accidents and deaths:
1. Where you ride. You are twice as likely to die in the city where it is congested than finding some nice country road. Most deaths occur in urban rather than rural areas, both in the U.K. and U.S. Speed is also a factor. The faster the speed limit on the road, the more likely you will be killed. For motorists, the most common reason for an accident and/or running over people is speed. By far, most accidents occur at intersections. This is true for cyclists, pedestrians and car occupants. You are also more likely to get killed at intersections and T’s in the road. Roundabouts are particularly dangerous in the U.K.
2. What time of day to ride. In the U.S. , you’re more likely to get killed between the hours of 4pm and midnight than at any other time. (28% and 25% respectively). This would make sense because this is when most people get off work and are in a hurry to get home. In the U.K., if you ride in ‘daylight’ , you are 80% more likely to be involved in an accident. They admit that “cycling accidents in the dark are more likely to be fatal”. So, statistically, it’s safer to ride in the U.S. and the U.K. in the mornings or even just after 3am. The fewest cycling fatalities occurred between the hours of midnight and 3:59 a.m. The general rule seems to be the later in the day you ride the more likely you may be involved in an accident.
3. How old are you? In the U.S., statistically, the older you are, the more likely you are to get killed. Cyclists between the ages of 45-54 had the highest fatality rate in the U.S. (3.51%). This is not good news for me since I’m 52. In the U.K. , you are more likely to die while cycling up until the age of 60. On the flip side, the younger you are, the more likely you are to be injured, but not killed while cycling. This is probably good for us old folk since an injury can not only end a cycling career but also hasten our admission to the nursing home as a crabby ole’ cripple.
4. Attentiveness. It seems even though we all have eyes in the front of our heads that either the cyclist or motorist were cited by failing to “look properly”. In the U.K. 57% of serious collisions by the driver and 43% of collisions by the cyclist were attributed to failing to “look properly”. So, I guess something can be said about having a mirror on your bike or helmet. However, I’d rather be looking in every direction, especially when approaching intersections. Some of you may say, “well, that’s why I ride against traffic”. You can read further down why this is such a bad idea.
5. Males are more likely to die than females on the bicycle. Yes, it’s true. Males are more likely to be involved in cycling injuries and fatalities. (85% to 78% respectively in the U.S.). In the U.K., four out of five casualties in cycling accidents involve males. This is likely due to the fact that more men cycle than women. However, something can be said about riding “more like a girl” . So, slow down and enjoy the scenery.
The NHTSA has listed some of their own recommendations when it comes to decreasing the risk of injury and death. (NHTSA’s Office of Safety Programs). Simply put, the NHTSA’s recommendations including 1) wearing properly fitted bicycle helmets every time you ride, 2) Obey traffic signs, signals and lane markings. Follow the rules of the road and cycle in the same direction of traffic, 3) Drivers should ‘share the road’ with bicyclists and 4) bicyclists should increase their visibility by wearing fluorescent or brightly colored clothing during the day, dawn or dusk. Front and rear lights are recommended. However, as we will soon see, even if you follow these safety recommendations, you can still get killed. Helmets and wearing bright gear can give cyclists a false sense of security. Does it surprise you that you can still get killed while wearing a helmet and following every letter of the law?
Even though cycling deaths are a relatively low percentage, there are other things that can be done to make sure you are not the next statistic. There are unseen risks that come with experience. We have to face facts, just because you wear a helmet, follow all the rules of the road and wear neon spandex, this in itself will not protect you from an accident or getting killed. You have to be proactive and know the workings of why accidents happen. Knowing both the general statistics of an accident or death AND proactively avoiding certain practices, you are much less likely to become the next statistic.
To get a better understanding of this, we have to look at accidents and how they happen. Most of the time, accidents happen either because motorists are going too fast and not allowing enough room for a cyclists and/or a driver is distracted or the cyclist assumes a motorist can see them. In the U.S., motorized vehicles and cyclists drive on the right side of the road. In England, they drive on the left. There have been many stories of pedestrians and cyclists not looking both ways when they cross an intersection or street and getting killed. In fact, in England, I have heard of people getting killed just crossing the street by failing to remember that the traffic is coming from the right rather than the left. In Britain, you are 3 to 4 more times as likely to die walking and crossing streets than you are riding a bicycle.
The most common type of accident here in the U.S. is when a car pulls out in front of a cyclist crossing an intersection, parking lot, driveway or street. (5) To avoid this mistake, drive more into the street or take up a full lane if there is no bike lane. You should slow down and always try to make eye contact with a driver. Always use headlights, even during the day so drivers can see you.
Do not ride on crosswalks or sidewalks. I know this seems simple, but I still see so many people riding the wrong way against traffic and/or on the sidewalk. These are usually “cycling noobies” who still think it’s too dangerous to ride on the road. Well consider that riding on a sidewalk, you are twice as likely to get hit or in an accident than riding on the road. SideWALKS are meant for “walking”, not riding. Cars always drive over sidewalks into most intersections where there are crosswalks to visualize traffic. Children are most likely to get killed when vehicles exit driveways and cross a sidewalk. As a driver, we can avoid these collisions with pedestrians, children and cyclists by stopping and then moving forward. Drivers should always look behind them before exiting driveways going backwards. Many children have been killed this way. Hopefully, these statistics will decrease with the advent of rear cameras in most cars today. However, a look behind you and pulling out very slowly is much safer.
Do not ride along parked cars in the city. Would it surprise you to know that people actually die on a bicycle when a door opens in front of them? Bicycle Safety compiled of list of 25 people who died as a result of “The Door Prize”. (6)
Do not ride against traffic. I’m still amazed at the number of cyclists I see riding against traffic. Most of them are under a false sense of security thinking that they will see oncoming dangers and quickly avoid them. They will also quickly remind you that most cyclists killed on the road are hit from behind. The risk of getting hit from behind is only 3.8% of all cycling accidents, a relatively low number. Of the 2% of cyclists that get killed every year in motor vehicle accidents, over 25% of that number is due to cyclists riding the wrong way or against traffic. Why is this so lethal? Well, consider the speed of an automobile and the average speed of a cyclist. It’s basic physics 101. If a car is traveling at 30 MPH and they crash into you as you are traveling 20MPH in the same direction, the relative speed of impact is only 10MPH. This is survivable. However, against traffic, if a car traveling the same speed and hits you, the accumulated speed is 50MPH, 5 times the speed as if you were traveling with the flow of traffic. I challenge anyone to survive a head-on impact at 50 MPH wearing only a bicycle helmet.
Do not stop next to cars at a red light, get behind them. It may surprise you that a number of cyclists have been killed basically standing still. If you are next to a car or truck at a red light and they decide to turn right, many times, they will not see you. You are basically in their ‘blind spot’. The best way to avoid this is to either stop directly behind them or behind their right bumper in front of the next car.
Always look behind you and to the left when approaching an intersection and slow down. One of the most common accidents is cars trying to beat the cyclist to the intersection or street and turn right into them. Many drives can not judge the speed of cyclists. Most drivers don’t realize that they need at least 3 to 4 car lengths ahead of the cyclists before turning. Many think they can turn within a car length, but most cars don’t take corners going 20 or 30 MPH. By the time the car slows to turn, the cyclist is directly in their blind spot. Usually, the motorist won’t stop, but rather the cyclist has to slam on his/her brakes to avoid a T-bone. When approaching a car at the intersection, street or driveway, never pass a car on the right who is going slower than you. Either slow down behind them or pass on the left if it is clear.
To me, these are some obvious ways to avoid getting into an accident or getting killed on your bicycle. It’s often best to ride as though everyone is out to run you over. This will get you to ride defensively. Avoid high traffic areas, intersections and high-speed roads. Ride in areas where there is very little traffic and use head and tail lights even during the day. If you can, ride in a group and not alone. If we can save one life by planning ahead and being smart about the way we ride, we can virtually eliminate the risk of getting into an accident. Of course, you can always set up some rollers and stay at home, but statistically speaking, I like my odds that I may not be hit on the road today.
Links and Resources
1. Pedestrian & Bicycle Information Center
2. NHTSA Data Traffic Safety Facts (2002-2011)[PDF]
3. Road Safety Fact Sheet – ROSPA [PDF]
4. Statistical release, Reported Road Casualties in Great Britain: Main Results 2013 [PDF]
5. Bicycle Safety: How to Not Get Hit by Cars
6. The Door Prize (Bicycle Safety)
7. Complete guide to safe cycling for cyclists and motorists
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