Transportation Safety Establishment Finally Starting to Understand Bicycling

The Governors Highway Safety Association's new report on bike safety tells states they need to design streets to reduce speeding. Photo: GHSA
The Governors Highway Safety Association's new report on bike safety tells states they need to design streets to reduce speeding. Photo: GHSA

The Governors Highway Safety Association came out with a report last week about how states can reduce cycling fatalities [PDF]. It’s not a revolutionary document, but if you look closely you’ll see signs of progress at one of the big national organs of the transportation safety establishment.

The GHSA offers 30 recommendations in all, a sort of grab-bag of common sense reforms.

Importantly, the organization confronts how excessive motor vehicle speeds create risks for people on bikes. The report recommends that states allow cities to lower speed limits, create “slow zones” on local street networks, and use automated speeding enforcement enforcement.

That marks the second time this summer a major American transportation safety agency has put out recommendations about speed reduction, following a major new report from the National Transportation Safety Board. This is an important development because of the weight these national organizations carry with state DOTs.

For a long time the standard message from these organizations was to discourage “drunk walking” and hammer home helmet use. Those messages haven’t gone away entirely. Check out this tweet from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last week:

GHSA was never quite as bad as the NHTSA, and for the most part, the organization seems to be receptive to the idea that systemic factors like dangerous street design need to be addressed more than the behavior of individual cyclists. There’s still the odd mention of “drunk cyclists” and helmets in the new report, but the emphasis has clearly shifted.

In addition to the recommendations about speed reductions, GHSA says state DOTs should educate policy makers about complete streets policies and tells them to use the NACTO Bikeway Design Guide, which explicitly endorses treatments like protected bike lanes that older American engineering manuals have yet to incorporate.

The GHSA doesn’t control any streets itself, but hopefully its evolving message will start to influence state DOTs around the country.

  • Vooch

    the war on cars starts with speed limits and ends with them taking away my pick up

  • Larry Littlefield

    “The two best protections when biking to and from school are a properly fitted bicycle helmet and obeying traffic safety rules.”

    At least they didn’t say a seat in your Mom’s SUV with the bicycle stored safely in the back.

  • Corvus Corax

    They know what needs to be done, they know it must be done, but how many cyclists must be killed or injured before they actually act? This amounts to criminal negligence. So much back-and-forth, so little forward motion.

  • John French

    I’m always surprised that helmets come before lights. If you ride at night, a set of lights is much more important than a helmet. And given how early schools start, anyone who rides a bike to school all year round definitely needs lighting for those early winter mornings.

  • D Man

    How dare they want to make cyclists wear helmets or obey traffic laws!

  • Justin Runia

    You can fall on your head any time of day, with or without the involvement of any other vehicles.

  • John French

    Doesn’t change the fact that (if you ride in the dark at all) lights will make a much bigger difference to your safety than a helmet. And lights aren’t just to make you visible: they help you see the road in front of you, too.

  • Chris J.

    Don’t forget front and rear reflectors as another aid in the absence of lights. They shine back to the driver if the driver has their headlights turned on.

  • 8FH

    I’ve done an extensive literature review on bicycle helmets, and the evidence for their efficacy isn’t as strong as you might think. Nor is there good evidence that adult cycling carries especially high risk of head injury when compared to other modes of transportation. We are trying to combat the view that cycling is especially dangerous and you need a magic hat to protect you or you are crazy and irresponsible. That viewpoint reduces cycling, normalizes dangerous infrastructure and bad behavior against cyclists (because biking is dangerous and that cyclist had it coming), and allows people to get away with traffic violence against cyclists if they are not wearing helmets, though helmets do not protect well against collisions with motor vehicles.

    As for following traffic laws, yes: everyone should follow traffic laws when it’s safe to do so. And everyone should especially respect everyone else’s right of way. But cyclists do not break traffic laws at a higher rate than other road users, and rulebreaking by motorists is much more dangerous to everyone than by cyclists and pedestrians. So focusing on scofflaw cyclists and pedestrians is unfair and unproductive.

  • 8FH

    You can also fall on your head while walking, running, getting out of a vehicle, going up and down stairs, jetskiing, etc. Cycling is not special.

    edit: however, youth cyclists have a higher risk of head injury than adults, so there is a better argument for kids to wear helmets.

  • User_1

    “Importantly, the organization confronts how excessive motor vehicle speeds create risks for people on bikes. The report recommends that states allow cities to lower speed limits, create “slow zones” on local street networks, and use automated speeding enforcement enforcement.”

    I was always an advocate of this. This is such common sense! It doesn’t take an influx of funding to employment or changes in the road structure. All it takes is enforcement of existing road infrastructure. If cars are going 5 mph or more over the posted speed limit, they get tickets. So often MANY streets has much of the traffic going 10 mph or more. Much more often it’s 15 mph or more.

    A reduction of 10 mph to movement does wonders for ALL. And this is done without changing a thing on the road, other than enforcement.

  • User_1

    How come the down arrow doesn’t work?

  • Joe R.

    The fact is risk of head injury is higher while walking, and yet nobody recommends wearing a helmet for walking. I’ve always found that intellectually dishonest. It’s even more intellectually dishonest to advocate motor vehicle crashes as a reason the wear helmets, the way the NHTSA does. That’s something they’re not even designed to protect against.

    In the great cycling countries helmet use is close to zero. I wish we would get on board with that in this country. We shouldn’t have governments, safety organizations, or cycling advocacy organizations recommending bike helmet use. As you mentioned in your other post, it sends the message cycling is very dangerous when in reality it’s safer than walking.

  • Vooch

    lol

  • Vooch
  • Vooch

    actually far more lives would be saved if helmets were required when inside a car https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/9f480adeafbdf90f342fefd05c03d35c433129782afe97cd92066e2a9c60fe43.jpg

  • John French

    Can you provide a link to your lit review?

    I don’t mean this to be snarky. I want it so I can provide it to friends, family, and internet commenters when they tell me I’m insane for not thinking that promoting helmet use is the #1 most important thing we can do to keep cyclists safe…

  • 8FH

    It’s not a formal review article, and I haven’t performed the statistical meta-analysis, however, I can provide some stuff I’ve posted elsewhere, which includes sources:

    Helmets ARE very effective in reducing head injuries (51% reduction), severe head injuries (69% reduction), and facial injuries (33% reduction) as a proportion of all cycling related injuries. [1] HOWEVER, other types of injuries, such as limb injuries go up. [2] Baseline risks are quite low.

    And bicycle laws are ineffective even if wearing a helmet is a good thing. The extension of the law in Washington State to Seattle reduced the incidence as a percent of bicycle injuries of serious head trauma. However, that’s not good news; serious head trauma stayed flat (or increased slightly,) and all other types of injury including minor head injuries increased in the years after the bike helmet law was passed. The effect was precipitous despite lagging behind the passing of the law. [3]
    There is also a ~5% reduction in the rate of cycling in some jurisdictions where helmet laws pass, which may contribute to the increased injuries. [4] but see [5].

    Taking into account the health benefits of cycling, the head injury prevention of helmets, and the ridership effects of helmet laws, such laws are detrimental to overall health, morbidity and mortality in places where cycling is safe and ineffective where cycling is dangerous. [6,7]

    There’s also the issue of risk compensation, where cyclist behavior may be more dangerous in the presence of safety equipment such as helmets. Such effects have been observed among drivers [8], though the effect is disputed.

    1. https://doi.org/10.1093/ije/dyw360
    2. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00068-014-0471-y
    3. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10900-016-0197-3
    4. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2016.03.009
    5. https://doi.org/10.1136/ip.2009.025353
    6. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2011.01785.x
    7. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01770.x
    8. https://doi.org/10.1086/260352

    Honestly, the quality of the literature is not great. There is a lot of apparent bias towards both sides (mostly for helmets) and there are major methodological issues which introduce bias into the injury studies.

  • Jack Hughes

    “In addition to the recommendations about speed reductions, GHSA says state DOTs should educate policy makers about complete streets policies and tells them to use the NACTO Bikeway Design Guide, which explicitly endorses treatments like protected bike lanes that older American engineering manuals have yet to incorporate.”
    Before you praise an endorsement of NACTO, please read http://john-s-allen.com/blog/?p=6051 Older American engineering manuals haven’t yet incorporated NACTO treatments because NACTO treatments are not yet ready for prime-time.

  • How do I join this War on Cars you speak of?

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