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What’s Behind the Rise in Cyclist and Pedestrian Deaths?

10:57 AM EST on December 11, 2012

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is out with traffic fatality data for 2011, and the news is not good for cyclists, pedestrians or, for that matter, anyone who uses U.S. roadways.

While motor vehicle deaths declined to a still mind-numbing 32,000, cycling deaths were up 8.7 percent, and 3 percent more pedestrians were killed. The increase represented a break with recent trends, and folks all over the Streetsblog Network and the news media had different theories on the cause.

Wash Cycle dismissed the bump -- which amounts to about 50 cyclists -- as statistical "noise," saying not much insight can be drawn from one-year's data. Furthermore, the blog points out, the total number of cyclists killed, 677, still represents the fifth safest year in the last 30, thanks to recent downward trends.

Dan Allison at Getting Around Sacramento pounced on the L.A. Times' suggestion that fewer cyclists wearing helmets was a factor in the increase:

A helmet is not designed for collisions with motor vehicles. They are only tested up to 12 mph, and even at those low speeds, they are not 100% effective. I believe that most of these fatalities would have occurred whether the bicyclists were wearing helmets or not ... Helmets may be effective in reducing head injuries for bicyclist self-falls, though even that is open to question, but they have very little to do with crashes involving motor vehicles. This is just more of the “blame the bicyclist” view of roadway safety.

Since the federal government has not made a good faith effort to count the total number of cyclists and pedestrians on the road, Allison points out, it's difficult to discern what the numbers mean for overall safety. "Fatality counts and injury counts are a mis-measure because they are affected by the rate of driving and a number of other factors, rather than the safety of driving," Allison says.

Meanwhile, Wash Cycle carried a quote from Jonathan Adkins, of the Governors Highway Safety Association, who said the increase was likely due to more cyclists on roads and streets. The city of DC has seen cycling rates rise 175 percent since 2004, he said.

Jonathan Maus at Bike Portland said cycling deaths have been climbing in that region, but only by about half as much: 4.4 percent.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Bike Portland reports the local school district's bicycling rate has surpassed 10 percent for the first time ever. Mobilizing the Region says young people who want less car-centric lifestyles are helping fuel a rise in multi-family housing. And M-bike.org notes that, contrary to frequent accusations of recklessness, Michigan cyclists have been responsible for a total of zero deaths to pedestrians or motorists in the last eight years.

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