8 Takeaways From the Bike League’s Study of Cyclist Fatalities

Track and field coach and mother Trish Cunningham, age 50, was killed while riding her bike in Annapolis, Maryland, in 2013. Photo: League of American Bicyclists
Track and field coach and mother Trish Cunningham, 50, was killed while riding her bike in Annapolis, Maryland, in 2013. Photo: League of American Bicyclists

When someone is killed while riding a bike in the United States, the most follow-up you’ll usually see is a newspaper article or two. There’s rarely a trial or a detailed examination of what went wrong.

The federal government tracks bike fatalities, but only to a limited extent. We don’t have great data about the wider story: who’s harmed and what factors are leading to these preventable deaths.

The League of American Bicycists wanted to go deeper. Between February 2011 to February 2013, the organization sifted through hundreds of cases from across the country. Using newspaper and television reports and blogs, they were able to get a closer look at 628 individual cases and tease out some patterns.

The cases they examined don’t account for every bike fatality during the study period (more like a third of them), but they are instructive. The League also supplemented its research with data from the NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS).

Below are some of the takeaways from the Bike League’s summary of its findings [PDF]:

1. Most fatalities occur on urban arterial roads

Fatalities were concentrated on high-speed “arterials” designed to speed motor vehicle traffic through urban areas. The second most frequent road category for cycling fatalities was local streets in urban areas.

Image via the League of American Bicyclists
Image via the League of American Bicyclists

2. The most common type of crash was being struck from behind

In 40 percent of the cases, the victim was struck from behind. The second-most common category was T-bone crashes, which accounted for 10 percent of fatal crashes. Head-on collisions (8 percent) and right-hook crashes, where the driver makes a right turn into a traveling straight (6 percent), were relatively less common.

3. In urban areas, cyclists were more likely to be killed at intersections

Cyclists traveling in rural areas were 3.7 times more likely to be struck and killed at a location that was not an intersection than urban cyclists.

4. Most victims were wearing a helmet

In the 150 cases where helmet use was cited in a crash account, 57 percent of the victims were wearing a helmet.

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5. Penalties varied based on the age and gender of the victim

Using news reports, it was only possible to track sentencing in a limited number of cases. Nevertheless, the Bike League found that harsher sentences were handed down to motorists who killed female cyclists, and to motorists who killed cyclists between the ages of 20 and 30.

6. If more people bike in your state, you’re less likely to be killed

The national fatality rate was 8.6 deaths per 10,000 regular commuters, between 2008 and 2012. In every state — except Florida — higher than average bike commuting rates translated to lower fatality risk.

7. Media reports about bike crashes are flawed

Working from press accounts to compile data on bike crashes can be tricky, because as the League notes, stories tend to be told from the survivor’s perspective. Basic facts like who had the right of way are often overlooked, and crashes are often presented in a manner that exculpates the motorist.

8. States aren’t tracking cycling fatalities very uniformly, if at all, which limits progress

Of the top 10 states for cycling, eight were tracking cycling collisions, but they weren’t all tracking crash type or motorist and cyclist information, and they weren’t collecting information uniformly across states. Without this type of data, the Bike League says, it’s difficult to determine whether road safety is improving and whether certain policies are improving outcomes.

  • Thanks for the information. Lots of great statistics; it doesn’t surprise me that 100% of the fatalities occurred on roads and 0% occurred on trails. I’m always disappointed that this isn’t a wake-up call to city planners, departments of transportation and the bicycling community in general. Dedicated multi-use paths whenever possible and physically separated bike lanes (with some sort of tangible barrier) whenever not possible is the only true answer when it comes to preventing bicycle fatalities.

  • Jim Watson

    Secondary impacts (head against window etc) for auto passengers are mitigated by seat belts and airbags, especially when you have multiple bags (for side impacts)

    Interesting to note that in part of the 60s or 70s LA cops were required to wear helmets while driving patrol cars. cops hated them in the summer heat. A guy I know got in trouble for being in a wreck, and not having it on.

  • The design envelope of a MC helmet is different, given the speed of a motorcycle. Plus, the motorcycle helmet doesn’t require the kind of cooling that a bicycle helmet does, since the rider of a moto is not exercising. If wore my Schuberth on the bicycle, it would be a bucket of sweat.

    Closest thing is the downhiller’s bicycle helmet, which looks like a lightweight version of a full coverage moto helmet.

    One of my bicycling colleagues at work was rear ended by a minivan on a 50 mph rural highway. His full Camelbak saved his back and neck, and his shattered bike helmet resulted in a concussion but he lived to ride again. You just never know.

  • Richard

    Why i avoid arterials like the plague, rather ride on the sidewalk and live…..

  • Paul S.

    I think the most telling number from table #1 is the fact that drivers were at fault 74% of the time. (And that number could be even higher with more information regarding the “none” and “other” categories).
    Also telling was how little difference it made if you were or weren’t wearing a helmet. Lawmakers have put far too much faith in helmets as the be all and end all of bicycle safety.

  • John Phillips

    I have been told that 2 out of 3 cycling deaths in CA did not involve motor vehicles. It looks like this report only looked at fatal bike / auto accidents.

    It does not say anything about bikes riding against traffic betting hit by cars coming out of driveways or streets. Cars to not look right very often becase they count on the fast traffic they are trying to merge with or cross coming from the left. A bike or a fast runner can be in front of or approaching a car in the time from the last right look until the car thinks everything is clear and goes.
    Most of the time the bike rider survives but can be hurt badly.

  • jarendt

    CDC statistics put bicyclist fatalities around 900 per year. http://www.cdc.gov/motorvehiclesafety/bicycle/
    Highway safety statistics put bicyclist fatalities from motor vehicle crashes around 700 per year. http://www.iihs.org/iihs/topics/t/pedestrians-and-bicyclists/fatalityfacts/bicycles
    Cyclist deaths in the U.S. are largely from motor vehicle crashes. Maybe you or the person who was telling you this had confused injuries with deaths.

  • dougmctx

    I don’t know about California, but the vast majority of cycling deaths in Texas involve motor vehicles. At least 80%, and perhaps a good deal higher than that.

    It would surprise me if CA was *that* different.

    Now if you replace fatalities with injuries as jarendt suggested … then I totally believe it.

  • dougmctx

    Table 1 doesn’t have any where near the detail needed to determine that drivers were at fault 74% of the time.

    For starters … 23% of Table 1 is “unknown”. (You didn’t really just assume that everything except “Unknown” and “Cyclist failed to yield” was the motorist’s fault, did you?)

    But beyond that, the only row that *guarantees* that the motorist was at fault was “Driver failed to yield” and that’s only 6%.

    I’d like to believe that they’re at fault 74% of the time … but I cannot come to this conclusion based on this table, and I doubt the Bike League did either.

  • dougmctx

    It really depends on how they classify things.

    On the sidewalk you’re pretty safe from being hit from behind, but if you get a right hook and the sidewalk is on an arterial … it’ll probably be classified as an arterial death even though you were on the sidewalk.

    I’m not going to say never ride on the sidewalk, but it does pose its own serious dangers and so one needs to be careful about it.