Don’t Believe the Headlines: Bike Boom Has Been Fantastic for Bike Safety

safety in numbers 77-12 570

The Governors Highway Safety Association released a report Monday that, the organization claimed, showed that the ongoing surge in American biking has increased bike fatalities.

Transportation reporters around the country swung into action.

“Fatal bicycle crashes on the rise, new study shows,” said the Des Moines Register headline.

“Cycling is increasing and that may be reflected by an increase in fatal crashes,” wrote NJ.com.

“Bike riding, particularly among urban commuters, is up, and the trend has led to a 16 percent increase in cyclist fatalities nationwide,” reported the Washington Post.

Bike fatalities are a serious problem that needs to be tackled. The United States has dramatically higher rates of injury and death on bikes than other rich countries, and it would be appropriate for GHSA, an umbrella organization of state departments of transportation, to issue an urgent call to action to make biking safer. So it’s especially troubling that the main thrust of this report is complete baloney.

As dedicated bike infrastructure has boosted U.S. ridership, risk has plummeted 78 percent

Photo: Michael Andersen

It’s true that the number of bike fatalities nationwide has increased over the last two years, from 621 in 2010 to 722 in 2012 — thus the bizarre infographics and hysterical headlines about the “growing problem” of bike fatalities. Buried deep in the report, though, GHSA notes that the annual death rate of cyclists is actually “among the lowest since 1975,” when U.S. DOT’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System first started compiling this data:

The highest annual total (1,003) occurred in 1975. Yearly deaths averaged 933 from 1975 to 1979, 889 in the 1980s, 792 in the 1990s, and 696 from 2000 to 2012. The 621 deaths in 2010 were the lowest in the 38 years of FARS.

But yes, between 2010 and 2012, the number of bike fatalities did increase. And that’s because the total number of bike trips in the country has been soaring:

Data: NHTS/NPTS
Data: NHTS/NPTS

Put those figures together, and what’s actually happening is that for an infinitesimal fraction of the cost of the nation’s transportation system, Americans are enjoying billions more bike trips every year than they were a generation ago. And because the sheer number of bikes on the street is teaching drivers to keep an eye out for bikes, every single bike trip is far, far safer than it was.

GHSA calls out six states for having the highest rate of bike deaths — California, Florida, Illinois, New York, Michigan, and Texas, which together accounted for 54 percent of all bicyclist deaths in collisions with motorists — without mentioning that those also happen to be the highest-population states in the country. The authors don’t even try to distinguish between places that are particularly dangerous for bicyclists and places where there are simply a lot of bikes on the street — possibly because it’s a particularly safe place to ride.

GHSA returns to its default stance: blaming the victim

Image: GHSA
Image: GHSA

Frustratingly, in its report calling attention to the “growing problem” of bicyclist fatalities, GHSA thrusts the responsibility back on the bicyclist. “Lack of helmet use and alcohol impairment have been and continue to be major contributing factors in bicyclist deaths,” says the report.

GHSA doesn’t devote much ink to street design or safe infrastructure. The report doesn’t mention the dangers of fast-moving car traffic on wide roads. It doesn’t endorse Vision Zero.

Instead, while admitting that “total physical separation [between bicycles and motor vehicles] is preferable,” GHSA dismisses it as “rarely feasible.” Bike lanes, bicycle boulevards, bicycle signals, traffic calming, and roadway lighting get one offhanded mention, while helmet use and alcohol get weird infographics — see above.

The victim-blaming is par for the course for GHSA, which made waves in 2011 when it implied that First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program had catalyzed an uptick in pedestrian deaths over a six-month period. GHSA didn’t exactly say the FLOTUS herself had pedestrians’ blood on her hands for inspiring more people to get out walking, but that’s how the news was reported. What the organization really meant to say, GHSA’s director clarified later, was that it was pedestrians’ fault for listening to their iPods.

Even so, GHSA says bike safety doesn’t merit national attention

Photo: Christopher Porter

Meanwhile, somewhat confusingly, GHSA has been holding forth on Twitter that bike fatalities are unimportant.

Yesterday — the same day it released a national report calling attention to the issue — the organization tweeted that these deaths don’t require national attention:

In another tweet, GHSA declared that bike-related fatalities aren’t an issue worth “universal” concern because only “specific groups” of Americans are being killed:

Reporters and editors treat the GHSA with respect because it describes itself as “The States’ Voice on Highway Safety.” State officials who are interested in helping their residents safely enjoy the benefits of biking might want to consider whether, on this issue, the GHSA is actually speaking for them.

Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets. You can follow The Green Lane Project on Twitter or Facebook or sign up for its weekly news digest about protected bike lanes.

  • ladyfleur

    The All Powerful Bike Lobby flexes its muscles again! A quick look at the GHSA Twitter stream shows they’re back-pedaling from yesterday’s tone deaf tweets.

    “Increasing safety of bicyclists on road is key to increasing use of bikes. ”
    ” ‘…you’ve got to protect cyclists when they’re…on the road w/ motor vehicles. This is a share-the-road situation.’ ”
    “#GHSABike report notes speeding is an issue that deserves much more attention to protect all roadway users.”

    More here: https://twitter.com/GHSAHQ

  • They are def tops on the list of who we’re mad at today on Twitter!

  • Dan

    It’s very likely the authors at GHSA are motorists who:
    1. Don’t own bicycles
    2. View them as many Americans do, toys for children.

    I don’t know what’s worse, living where I live with inadequate bike infrastructure and mostly polite drivers, or living somewhere with lots of bike lanes and rude drivers. Riding a bike where I live is considered a “recreational” activity for the weekends. (I commute to work of course, totally counter culture, in work clothes)

  • Anxiously Awaiting Bikeshare

    It is way better to have good infrastructure and rude drivers. I’d rather be insulted and alive.

  • Dennis_Hindman

    Using the percentages of commuters who stated they bicycled to work in the U.S. from 2010 to 2012, which were compiled by the League of American Bicyclists from Census Bureau American Community Survey results, there was an increase of 18% more people stating that they used a bicycle as their primary method of traveling to work in that time frame. If the fatalities for bicycle commuters went up 16%, then the risk of getting killed while riding to work went down.

  • BBnet3000

    Yeah but even people who drive everywhere can have a basic understanding of how to correctly interpret statistics.

  • Does anyone know who actually runs/staffs GHSA? I’m wondering if this actually has any connection to state governors, in which case I’d want to know to what degree this report seems so dismissive of bikes because the majority of governors are Republicans.

  • Rascal_Face

    Good infrastructure and Rude Drivers is an apt description of San Francisco. In the 10 years I’ve been riding here we’ve seen the infrastructure improve a lot and the drivers stay just as aggro as always.

  • Sean Hughes

    Misleading headlines are so annoying. A better headline would be “More people on bikes leads to an increase in biker deaths.” Then in the article one could go into how percents are different than amounts.

  • ralph

    Wow, bicycling is really dangerous! ~150 fatalities per billion trips, that means 1 fatality per 7 million trips, so if you take 2 bike trips per day, 365 days/year, and the fatality rate doesn’t get any better, you’ll likely be killed on your bike by the time you’re 10,000 years old!

    Unless maybe you do bike share. These helmetless riders have done something like 30 million trips in the US, with zero fatalities. So if you’re not wearing a helmet, you might not live to see your 40,000th birthday. Scary!

  • Wash Cycle

    The “rise” is likely just reversion to the mean. 2010 had the fewest number of cyclist deaths on record. Of course it would go up in subsequent years. Same thing happened in 2002-2004. Three data points, with the first being an outlier, does not a trend make.

  • The issue in San Francisco is not deaths but injury accidents and cycling. A UC study found that the city has a radically flawed method of counting accidents on city streets that missed more than 1,300 injury accidents to cyclists. One wonders how many other cities have this problem: relying on police reports and ignoring many accidents treated in emergency rooms:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=Using+trauma+center+data+to+identify+missed+bicycle+injuries+and+their+associated+costs

  • SFnative74

    From their website:

    “Vision: Through GHSA leadership, partnerships and advocacy,
    States and Territories move toward zero deaths on the nation’s
    roadways.”

    Zero deaths is exactly in line with Vision Zero policies, but for some reason, GHSA seems to think a human life lost on a bike is not as important as a human life lost in an automobile?

  • Rascal_Face

    Even in cases of deaths to cyclists the drivers are frequently not cited. the city was also caught gaming the stats for injuries caused by bus drivers a while back.

    All I’m saying is that from my own perspective the added bike lanes, bike turn lights, etc have made a big improvement. Anyone who had to cross Masonic St through the panhandle ten years ago knows what I’m talking about.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    More likely it’s because the majority of governors like to position themselves in opposition to the largest cities in their state, rather than in alignment with them.

  • Grant Martin

    Perhaps the reason that in 25% of bicycle fatalities the bicyclist is alcohol impaired is that they lost their driver’s license due to DUI. They are not riding for exercise or pleasure; they are riding because it’s their only transportation option.
    It’s hard to believe any serious cyclist is going to ride impaired.

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