It's Road Layouts Not Cyclists Who Are To Blame When They Die
If you had seen the headlines in some American newspapers recently you might be forgiven for assuming that bicycle fatalities had risen in several states in recent years and therefore that cycling has become more dangerous. But, as the Alliance for Biking and Walking was quick to point out, the contrary is the case.
Above: the misleading headline statistic from the Governors Highway Safety Association report.
The original figures were published by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), which represents the state and territorial highway safety offices that implement programs to address behavioral highway safety issues.
Its survey, conducted by a former Chief Scientist of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Dr. Allan Williams, unearthed some not very surprising trends, such as that the proportion of adults cycling has jumped considerably since 1975, and – really surprising – that "bicycling fatalities are increasingly an urban phenomenon", correlating with an increase in bicycling commuters, a 62% jump since 2000, according to 2013 Census Bureau data.
One thing that the GHSA does go to great lengths to emphasise is that "helmet laws are an effective countermeasure" for tackling the risk of cycling injury and death. 21 states have helmet laws for younger riders but none of them have a universal helmet law, and 29 states don't have a bicycle helmet law at all.
But what the Alliance for Biking and Walking were complaining about was the misleading headlines arising from the survey, taken from the graphic and related data above, such as that in the LA Times: "Bicycle traffic deaths soar; California leads nation."
They pointed out that the numbers were completely meaningless because they failed to present the number of fatalities as a percentage of the number of people riding bikes, which has gone up considerably.
It's not surprising that there will be more fatalities if there are more people riding bikes. And this way of looking at the figures, it says, is much more useful "because it tells us about risk as compared to exposure".
It presents the following graph which compares the number of people bicycling to work and fatality rates in large cities. It can be seen that where there is a greater percentage of people bicycling to work, fatality rates go down.
Cycling fatalities as a proportion of the number of cyclists by American city.
If we look at the figures this way we can tell which are the safest cities and where cycling is encouraged. The ABW also points out that "there is a reverse correlation between bicyclist fatalities and the rate of biking to work", because "drivers are more likely to operate carefully and safely around bikers when they're used to seeing people biking".
The ABW helpfully also observes that in fact when you look at the figures this way it's not California that is the most unsafe place for cycling (where there were only 6.3 fatalities per 10,000 cycling commuters) but Mississippi (where there are 70.4 fatalities per 10,000 cycling commuters).
It charges the GHSA to compel states to fund projects and programmes to boost bike safety by using the significant federal funding that is available for bike and pedestrian safety measures under the Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP) within federal transportation law.
Sadly, very few states have elected to do this, all the stranger because the GHSA is made up of state and territorial highway safety offices that actually implement programs to address behavioral highway safety issues.
"These are the very offices that hold responsibility to spend available funds for safer biking and walking," the ABW points out (my emphasis).
The average state spent just 0.4% of Highway Safety Improvement Program funds on biking and walking safety – about two-tenths of a penny per person, with New York among many that are spending nothing at all.
In their report, the GHSA seem to be putting the blame on cyclists for getting killed on the road; not only by saying that people are more likely to be injured if they don't wear a helmet, but in pointing out that one in four adult bicyclists killed in 2012 were "alcohol-impaired". What they don't say is how many drivers involved in accidents were in a similar state.
Of course people should wear bicycle helmets, but this attitude smacks more of blaming the victim rather than those who are much more likely to be responsible: the people who design and maintain the travel systems.