As big cities across the country grapple with population growth and all projections indicate they’ll continue to burst at the seams, it would be natural to think that transportation planners are focused on expanding roads and maximizing traffic flow. Instead, they’re recalibrating the options, examining everything from adding autonomous shuttles to public-transit fleets to increasing the miles of bike lanes and bike paths. In turn, more Americans are using bicycles to get to work and move around urban areas. The number of biking commuters has grown 51 percent between 2000 and 2016. But that pedal power has come at a high cost in deaths and injuries.
Bicyclist deaths reached 840 in 2016, the highest number recorded in the United States since 1991, according to the latest data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which shows rising deaths across most groups of road users. The total number of bicyclists injured in U.S. crashes each year was 50,000 in 2014 and 45,000 in 2015, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA)’s annual bike-safety report.
The organization analyzed bicycle crash data from 1975 to 2015 and found that a long-term decline in deaths reversed in 2016 and started a gradual climb. Another long-term shift finds that adults are far more likely than children to be the victims in a fatal crash now. Today, adults account for 88 percent of bicyclist fatalities, with the average age being 45. Male riders are almost six times more likely to be killed than female cyclists, a disparity that remains unchanged since 1975. One thing in common: They’re all more vulnerable than people in cars.
“Without that metal cage around us, we’re much more likely to get seriously injured or killed,” said Bill Nesper, executive director of the League of American Bicyclists.
One leading contributor is alcohol impairment, according to the GHSA report. Twenty-two percent of cyclists killed in crashes had a blood-alcohol content (BAC) higher than the DUI limit of 0.08 percent, while 12 percent of involved motorists had a BAC that exceeded the limit. Additionally, 27 percent of all bicyclists killed in these crashes had a BAC of 0.01 or higher. While the numbers declined for both groups, the GHSA reports that they have not fallen as dramatically for bicyclists as they have for drivers. Other factors are as daunting: 54 percent of cyclists killed in 2015 were not wearing helmets.
Collisions between bicycles and motor vehicles most commonly occurred when a motor vehicle was overtaking a bicyclist going in the same direction, when a motorist turned into the path of a cyclist going straight in either direction, when a motorist pulled out of a driveway or alley, when a motorist opened a car door into the path of an oncoming cyclist, when a cyclist was riding in the wrong direction, and when a cyclist wasn’t visible. In 2015, distracted-driving incidents accounted for the deaths of 79 cyclists, a slight decrease. Nesper said, though, that he’s not convinced that things are improving on that front.
“Without that metal cage [of a car] around us, we’re much more likely to get seriously injured or killed.”
– Bill Nesper, League of American Bicyclists
“There’s a real need for better data collection, because distracted driving is such a big issue,” he said, adding that with all the technology currently available, there ought to be a way to shut down a phone while its owner is driving. “Cyclists come across distracted drivers every day, but the thing is, a little mistake that would cause a fender bender with a car could cause a death with a pedestrian or a cyclist.”
The GHSA report pointed out that distracted driving is probably underreported, citing a recent study of U.S. cellphone records that indicated about a quarter of the motorists involved in a crash were using a cellphone within one minute before the incident.
More adult commuters are turning to bicycling overall. The number of U.S. workers who travel to work by bicycle ramped up from 488,000 in 2000 to 786,000 between 2008 and 2012, according to the American Community Survey, which is overseen by the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s a larger-percentage increase than in any other commuting mode of transportation.
With more people choosing bicycling, governments are becoming more involved in planning that incorporates their presence. For one example, New York City transportation officials have responded to a rash of pedestrian deaths along Queens Boulevard by retiming signal phases to give pedestrians more time to cross several lanes of traffic. They also removed two of the 12 existing traffic lanes, built new curbs, and widened medians. More crosswalks were also added, according to the New York Times, to help thwart jaywalking.
After years in which the number of pedestrians killed along that road had reached double digits, there hasn’t been a single death since 2014, the Times reported.
Dedicated bicycle lanes and greenways have been included in urban planning for years now. In cities like New York City, Portland, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., urban street-redesign programs have slowed automotive traffic in key areas to provide more and better options for pedestrians and cyclists.
“I think the big challenge for engineers is to change their approach from ‘How do we move as many cars through here as possible?’ to ‘How do we make these streets safer and more attractive?’ ” Nesper said. “I personally believe that slowing things down and making it more safe for all users is the direction we need to be going.”
In its conclusion, the GHSA report highlighted the need to improve education and training, starting at a young age, to build “a community of roadways users—regardless of mode—who know how to interact with each other in a safe and predictable manner.” Despite the need for more and better data, humanizing the nomenclature of travelers from bicyclist, pedestrian, and motorist, the report’s authors suggest, will see “sharing the road” morph from a catchy slogan to a cultural norm.