Nothing to Fear…

With the number of heated discussions related to bicycle safety that circulate around the internet (and occasionally appear on this site), one might get the impression that riding a bicycle is dangerous. Fortunately, the statistics say otherwise. Following is a list compiled by Failure Analysis Associates, Inc. (Design News, 10-4-93) comparing the fatal risk associated with participating in various activities:

Activity Fatalities Per Million Hours
Skydiving 128.71
General Aviation 15.58
On-road Motorcycling 8.80
Scuba Diving 1.98
Living (all causes of death) 1.53
Swimming 1.07
Snowmobiling .88
Automobile Driving .47
Water Skiing .28
Bicycling .26
Flying (domestic airlines) .15
Hunting .08

I’ve seen other similar lists, and while the numbers and activities may vary a bit, the overall message is the same: bicycling is safe. So, for those who are unsure about bicycling, educate yourself, make informed choices about your equipment, ride responsibly, and get out there and have fun; the benefits of bicycling far outweigh the risks!

48 Responses to “Nothing to Fear…”

  • Jason B says:

    This is the kind of thing that I have been telling friends for years, but emotions are hard to dissuade with facts.

    I’m a believer of the example of others. The more we are out riding in a safe manner (rain and shine), the more people will come and join us.

    Alan, your blog is a good example of this too. It presents bicycling in a positive integrated lifestyle. Not a us vs them or as an elitist sport.

    Keep up the good work.

  • Alan says:

    Jason,

    Thanks very much. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do.

    Regards,
    Alan

  • ghd3 says:

    great post. good perspective. But, as Jason B notes, impressoins can be difficult to change. Good factoid(s), though! Keep on riding!

  • JB says:

    Those numbers aren’t quite as reassuring as I want. Notice it’s accidents per hour. If you compared driving to biking per mile, just based on these numbers, I think driving would come out safer. Not too much safer, but I was rooting for the bikes.

  • Alan says:

    @JB

    Ken Kifer addressed the question of hours-of-exposure versus miles in great detail on his website:

    “Even though calculations based on exposure make more sense, as I have just explained, many vastly prefer statistics based on miles. However, data based on miles creates a bias. Consider a comparison between travel by jet with travel by car. Since the jet is 20 times faster, a comparison based on miles makes the jet look 20 times safer. Of course, if we are assuming the same distance will be covered, comparison by miles is quite fair, but bicycles and cars do not travel the same distance, as I just pointed out. Even a car-free cyclist is going to ride far below the 11,600 miles of the average motor vehicle.

    Whichever set of figures we use, we discover a very low danger from cycling. Let’s say the a cyclist rides 250 hours per year, say 3,000 miles, somewhat higher than the amount for a regular cyclist. And we’ll say that this person rides 60 out of the normal 75 years of life, or 15,000 hours and 180,000 miles total. Using the Failure Associates figures, this person is going to have to have a 1/256 chance of getting killed while cycling during his lifetime. Using The Environmental Benefits of Cycling and Walking figures and using the mileage data from 1997, the cyclists has a 1/142 chance of getting killed while cycling during a lifetime. Using the Johns Hopkins figures, we can suppose our cyclist makes 250 bike trips a year for those 60 years; that’s 15,000 trips. Then he has a 1/133 chance of dying with his bike shoes on. Compare these with the lifetime risk of dying in a motor vehicle of 1/60 and 1/83, which I calculated above.

    However, these figures assume that this cyclist is no safer than any other cyclist. In truth, anyone who rides this much is going to have to acquire real cycling and traffic skills; it’s the children and the child-like riders who are more likely to bite the dust.”

    Alan

  • brett says:

    And I don’t think this even takes into account the demonstrated life-lengthening properties of bicycling: the exercise you’re getting reduces the risk of obesity related risk factors, build cardiopulmonary health, etc. etc.

  • Fritz says:

    A little more accurate might be to say that cycling is relatively or reasonably safe. Every activity has its risks, and bicycling _can_ be made much safer in the USA (e.g. the experience of the UK in dramatically reducing road injuries and fatalities over the past decade, and the generally lower cyclist fatality rate in Europe vs the USA).

    On JB’s point about risks on a per mile basis (which Alan also addresses) : driving is indeed safer per mile, but it’s important to note that you’re not going as far when bicycling. Visiting Mega Mart 20 miles away or Disneyland 400 miles away isn’t a big deal in a car, but you’re much less likely to make that trip if you use a bike to get around.

  • cyclepete says:

    Time vs. distance -
    Since most bicycle trips ( transportational, at leas) are short, the distance-to-time ratio isn’t as bad as one might think. For distances of 5 miles or less, the travel time differential is small between cars and bikes. So if these safety numbers are correct, it might be safer on a per mile basis by bicycle compared to car.

  • Duncan Watson says:

    I am car lite and ride about 150 miles per week right now. I am only spending 12 hours on the bike per week. When I was an auto commuter I would easily exceed that per week.

  • Croupier says:

    Skydiving is so dangerous! I hope they work out the kinks soon because it seems like such an efficient way to get around.

  • doug says:

    Robert Hurst’s The Art of Cycling provides some interesting analysis of this, and other, data. It’s also a fantastic book on how to ride a bicycle intelligently and safely and also a really great read.

    He makes a good point: this chart tracks fatalities and nothing else. So yes, riding a bike is rarely fatal. What this, and every other collection of statistical data, leaves out is injuries, which have a much, much, much higher rate of incidence while riding compared to driving an auto. Even studies that specifically track bicycle injuries are flawed, because the vast majority of bicycle injuries are not reported, since most folks just limp home without going to the hospital (guilty here).

    So, while bicycling results in relatively few serious injuries and even fewer deaths, millions of people are biffing it every year. It is very likely that you will get hurt several times this year while riding your bike, since even a minor one-bike accident will most likely involve your body crashing into abrasive pavement. There is very little chance that you will be hurt while driving your automobile, since even in an accident you are relatively well protected by the car (all bets off on the freeway, though).

    This statistical ambiguity goes both ways, however: most studies include children on bikes, who skew the data majorly. For instance, most bicycle accidents involving children are the fault of the bicyclist, while for adults it’s the converse. Put the two sets of data together like most studies do, and you can use it to say that “Bicyclists are their own worst enemy in traffic,” when this is not quite true.

    Final lesson: Statistics are damned liars and they should always be taken with a grain of salt. The last thing we need to be is complacent, feeling assured of our safety because someone out there crunched some hopelessly incomplete data.

    I’m just paraphrasing Mr. Hurst here, so I encourage you to go out and buy The Art of Cycling and his new book, The Cyclist’s Manifesto. Great stuff!

  • Duncan Watson says:

    @Doug

    Every car crash I have been in I was injured. With Air Bags burning and contusing drivers I believe this number has just gone up. Back and alignment injuries are common as well. I think your premise that There is very little chance that you will be hurt while driving your automobile, is untrue. There is a frightful amount of energy in a car crash even at low speeds.

    I don’t consider a skinned elbow or knee the same level as 8 stitches in my skull. The worst injury I experienced as a rider was a broken arm in 1982 or so. I was hospitalized from a car crash in 1990. Sure this is anecdotal data and neither were fatal but I am not prepared to die to have better anecdotes.

  • Alan says:

    Hi Doug,

    While Hurst certainly makes some good points (I read The Art of Cycling and enjoyed it), I still contend that for some (many?) people the perceived dangers of bicycling are far out of sync with reality.

    The statement “It is very likely that you will get hurt several times this year while riding your bike” doesn’t hold true to my experience at all. I’ve been riding almost non-stop since around 1970, and the last time I remember getting hurt on a bicycle was when I was a kamikaze mountain biker back in the 1980s. I don’t recall ever sustaining an injury while riding my bicycle casually or for transportation.

    Thanks for your comments-
    Alan

    PS – I need to correct myself; I did tip over in my driveway while clipped-in a few years ago and bruised my ego pretty good… ;-)

  • charles says:

    Perhaps I could really improve my chances if I went hunting on my bicycle since it appears that hunting has one of the lowest risk rates. Guess I’d have to buy a bicycle trailer to haul back my natural, organic, free ranging, protein source. Skydiving always seemed silly to me……the jumping out of a perfectly good airplane part never made much sense.

  • Fritz says:

    . It is very likely that you will get hurt several times this year while riding your bike, since even a minor one-bike accident will most likely involve your body crashing into abrasive pavement.

    I’m a pretty assertive/aggressive road rider, but this doesn’t match my experience at all. Car crashes are not inevitable, nor are injuries when they occur.

    I’ve had four bike vs car “interactions” since the late 70s, once as a teen. My anecdotal experiences.

    1. Left cross by a Datsun. I went over the hood, bounced off the windshield and landed on my feet. Bike (my dad’s custom built touring bike) was crushed. I was completely uninjured.

    2. Driver ran a stop sign and hit me with a glancing blow . I was knocked into the road and sustained some bruising and abrasions.

    3. Right hook in Menlo Park two years ago. I jumped off the back of the bike as the bike flipped over the car. No injuries.

    4. I was rear ended in Santa Cruz at a stop sign about a month ago — I suppose the driver didn’t expect me to stop. Jolted me a little, bent the wheel but no injuries.

    Four collisions with cars, injured in only one of them. My hypothesis: If you’re getting injured several times in a year, you might be doing something wrong. A friend of mine in Longmont, Colorado, “Bob,” consistently rides his bike on the sidewalks because “roads are dangerous.” He also has had several emergency room visits each year from getting hit by cars at intersections.

    Not every hazard is controllable, but you can control your risk while cycling to some degree.

  • andy parmentier says:

    i ride a bmx and a unicycle. the sidewalk welcomes me with open arms. but even on a more conventional steed, out on the road, i feel..safe? no, i feel good. in a metal box, i feel safe but not so good. but bicyclists dont share the road with 18 wheelers in the city. out on country highways, i have felt the combined 20 wheels of the truck and the bike to be a bad combination.

  • Scott Wayland says:

    Of course, we are the choir here, but these discussions always interest me. As has been pointed out, the accident rates are always skewed with children, drunks and morons thrown into the mix. Take them out, and the picture gets even better. My own experience seems to be typical: Cycling for about 40 years, only a few bruises and a minor cut or two. That’s it. And (gasp! no helmet) my most dramatic accident happened when I rocketed down a hill at about age twelve in the pouring rain with nicely polished rims–i.e. no brakes. I plowed into a car that had just stopped at an intersection. Bam! Airborne roll over the top and on me feet on the other side–a 10! Only a couple of bruises. I tour for at least a month every year.

    Sure, I could get the chop, but driving is still the most dangerous thing that most of us do on a regular basis–BY FAR. And when was the last time you heard someone twist off about the dangers of driving? I have a neighbor who is a fireman and spends too much time dealing with the aftermath of drivers’ poor decisions, and he repeatedly says he wouldn’t ride on the road because of the risk. I doubt these statistics would convince him otherwise, but they should.

    Scott

  • Dave M says:

    Persuading people that cycling is actually about as safe* as driving or walking is our biggest challenge.

    However, it is hard. I mean, as you stand there in your flourescent body suit and helmet, try persuading someone in a shirt & tie or a summer dress that they’d be just as safe cruising on a bike, like you!

    So in many ways, I worry that cyclists themselves seem to go along with this dangerous image, just as much as non-cyclists push the myth. If riding is so safe, why do we insist on special protective gear and even armour (if only for the head)?

    This is one of the reasons why I try to encourage people to ride, by taking the same safety precautions when I ride as when I walk or drive (this is a code-word for, I don’t wear a helmet or dayglow suit!)

    Some food for thought, anyway!

    * you can quibble this way and that, but to all intents and purposes it’s not significantly more dangerous to get about by bike.

  • Duncan Watson says:

    re: Time vs Distance

    A number of posters questioned the time basis of this study. Yet other studies show that people will limit activity based on the expected time it will take them (no reference). This means that bicycle trips will be limited to 10 (to 20) min trips in many circumstances.

    Let me put it another way. I might be willing to drive to whole foods 15 miles away instead of shopping at the safeway 1 mile away. If riding my bike, I will go to safeway almost every time.

  • cafn8 says:

    I think the dangers of dying by riding a bicycle in traffic are AS over-estimated by the general public as the danger of dying an early death due to heart disease is UNDER-estimated. Years ago, I realized that the danger of my car killing me slowly was greater than my bicycle killing me quickly. That is why I ride every chance I get.. Well, that and riding so much fun.

  • HowardBollixter says:

    I just think it’s interesting that of all the things on this list, with bikes and cars, increasing participation in one and decreasing the other would result in improved fatality statistics for both.

    As for injury risk, in all my years I’ve had three major crashes, with one resulting in a hospital visit. All were my fault exclusively, dicking around, but the thing is, NOBODY else got hurt! Major difference between stupid bike and stupid car behavior.

  • Larey says:

    I expect to be run over, just not today.

  • Rider says:

    Interesting.

    That looks like 16-year-old data, if I’m reading this right.

    I’d be interesting to see what has changed in those years. I find more cyclists on the road now than back then (but that’s just my perception).

    If true, then what — is cycling safer, or less so, with more people out and about on bikes?

  • Adrienne says:

    Why are we so preoccupied with risk? There was a time when people knew that at some point we are going to die, so they stopped worrying about it and got on with doing what needed to be done. Why do we make tables about what is the most dangerous and how many hours we have in an activity before we are in the danger zone?

    How many hours of sleep before we die? How many hours of mall shopping before we die? Reading? Playing at the playground with the kids?

    I would love a table that shows how many days I have given myself to lengthen my life because I ride or sky dive or scuba dive or walk in my neighborhood… all things that make me happy, or would if I did them.

    We have our priorities all screwed up.

  • David Hembrow says:

    Yeh, but sky diving is “very safe” too. It’s only likely to kill you around once every three hundred years if you jump every single day of your life.

    Stats like this don’t promote cycling any more than they promote sky diving. What is needed is for cycling to have a higher degree of subjective safety.

  • Alan says:

    “Stats like this don’t promote cycling any more than they promote sky diving.”

    Sure they do. It’s important for us to be able to say to our friends and acquaintances that bicycling is safer that driving, etc. I can see where it wouldn’t be helpful in a country like yours where bicycling is already the primary mode of transport, but we’re fighting an uphill battle here in the U.S. and we need this kind of information.

    I fully agree that a higher degree of “subjective safety” is necessary for bicycling to widely take hold, but we have a long way to go in the U.S. before infrastructure approaches anything like what is seen in the cycling countries of Europe. In the meantime, we’re out there talking to people one-on-one, and having a few stats in our pockets surely can’t hurt.

  • Christina says:

    Hunting is the safest? Seriously?

    This is great information. But I still think the best advertistement for bike safety is being able to say, “I’ve been riding for x years and I’ve never been hurt.”

  • Alan says:

    “Why are we so preoccupied with risk? There was a time when people knew that at some point we are going to die, so they stopped worrying about it and got on with doing what needed to be done. Why do we make tables about what is the most dangerous and how many hours we have in an activity before we are in the danger zone?”

    The point of publishing the table was to show that some things we perceive as being dangerous (bicycling, for example) are actually safer than our perceptions, while others (driving, for example) are more dangerous than our perceptions. How many people think about the danger of driving their car when they head off to Starbuck’s in the morning? Very few I suspect. Yet even us bicyclists seem preoccupied with the “dangers” of bicycling, arguing about helmets and helmet laws, discussing the merits of day-glo orange versus chartreuse safety vests, analyzing the reflective properties of this safety tape versus that one. If nothing else, statistics, as flawed as they can be, may provide a little reality check and help us to put things in their proper perspective.

    [PS - I'm guessing the list was originally compiled for the insurance industry.]

  • Kevin Saunders - KGS Bikes says:

    I like the “per million hours” as opposed to per mile as it is conservative and still shows that driving a car, hour for hour, is almost twice as dangerous as riding a bike.

    Thanks so much.

    Kevin Saunders

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  • nmanhipot says:

    I was injured just a month into commuting by bicycle. I grew-up riding bikes, had been riding steadily for several months, had lights and a reflective vest on when I was broadsided by a left-turning pick-up truck at 6:15 AM while going through a green light. After I recovered and started riding again, I eventually started commuting by bike again and have had no involuntary dismounts in five years, but I’ve had quite a few close calls and have seen lots of careless drivers and risk-takers jeapordizing my safety. There’s little you can do about a car overtaking you from behind, even if you see it coming in a mirror, and there’s also little you can do about people turning in front of you except nail the brakes or swerve and hope for the best.

    I think if you commute by bicycle, you are accepting the strong likelihood that you’re going to be splatted by a large vehicle. Fortunately, I went over the top of the truck, not under, which is why I’m still alive today.

  • Duncan Watson says:

    I think the fear of death is strong in cyclists because we ride in close proximity to multi-ton dealers of death, the automobile. A careless move by a motorist will swat a cyclist and when you combine two tons of mass with a high velocity the resultant energy is large. Transfer that energy to a low mass cyclist and it is likely to be fatal.

    Yet in the end motorist/cyclist crashes are not very common, the rules of the road are well established and do leave room for errors that don’t end in crashes. Motorist/Motorist crashes are much more common.

    But the awareness of our (cyclists) fragility in the face of multi-ton collisions is very strong.

  • Dave M says:

    nmanhipot, it sounds pretty funny to hear such a tiny risk referred to as a “strong likelihood”.

    At the end of the day you are much more likely to die of heart disease or cancer (20% chance, but much more if you’re a guy) than “splatted” on your bike. In fact, your chance of dying *in* that truck is about 60x higher than being hit by it!

    Great news, huh? Whatever way you cut it, cycling looks like a pretty safe way to get around :)

  • Jessi Hance says:

    I agree with HowardBollixter.

    “I just think it’s interesting that of all the things on this list, with bikes and cars, increasing participation in one and decreasing the other would result in improved fatality statistics for both.”

    I can’t wait till there are bike traffic jams and bike-bike collisions! Won’t that be the day!

    Never mind the statistics, though. No matter how low the chance, I know that there’s no contest between me and a car or truck. So I work really, really hard at traveling defensively. I don’t make left turns on my bike–I turn into a pedestrian and use the walk light and the crosswalk. I cede my right of way whenever it seems prudent. I never, never let myself rush. I wear a helmet, religiously.

    Most important rule? Never, ever trust drivers!

  • nmanhipot says:

    I’ve just run some of my own numbers based on the population of metro Atlanta (5.3 million) x 0.6% cyclocummuters x1,000 miles per year, and yeah, the fatalities look very low – about in-line with the study. Hmmm. My perception based on my accident, the incessant honks, yelling and close-calls must be jading my actual odds of being crushed again. I dunno. I still think about the fellow that was killed when he was rear-ended at an intersection I think I’ve ridden through before in Dallas. The news crew even filmed his wife at the scene being notified of his death. Cruel. I was shaken. The guy was just waiting at a red light when a pick-up just blitzed him from behind.

  • Adrienne says:

    “I think the fear of death is strong in cyclists because we ride in close proximity to multi-ton dealers of death, the automobile.”

    I do not ride in fear. I do not think about multi-ton dealers of death. I ride my bike.

    “My perception based on my accident,”

    When I was in college I had a horrid accident while riding that gave me injuries that still impact me (my fault, no one else’s). I realized a couple of years ago that I was riding every day like that accident was about to happen again, and it was making me a poor and unsafe rider. I had to stop living in that moment in order to keep riding, otherwise I was just reliving the same incident over and over instead of just riding to work.

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  • Rebecca says:

    I was riding last fall and took a spill, landed full impact on my chin on asphalt, resulting in killing or damaging 15 teeth and breaking my jaw in three places, as well as smashing my left wrist joint. Now I dont chew or speak correctly, and cant straighten out that left arm properly, and the whole healing process, including multiple surgeries, dental work, orthodontics etc is looking to cost around $50 – $75 thousand. So I’d really like accurate statistics on the likelihood of an injury before I get back on again. Thanks for trying to put some numbers out there, although I agree it’s probably really hard to pin down the real risk, due to reporting difficulties and all. I’ve read Schneier’s book Beyond Fear and try to do reasonable risk analysis, but it’s hard with inadequate information.

  • Alan says:

    Hi Rebecca,

    We’re so sorry to hear about your terrible fall. We hope you have a quick and full recovery.

    Best regards,
    Alan & Michael

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  • Biking says:

    I think the bigger surprise for me was the hunting statistics. I agree though cycling is really safe, unless like anything else you are irresponsible about it.

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  • Doug says:

    I’m so late to the party…oh well I’ll just stop in for a sec…

    The hunting stat doesn’t surprise me. In my experience hunters are like committed cyclists -safety is integral and a regular topic of discussion during the activity. Seems to me gun owners who are not hunters are more likely to not have the respect that an ounce of gun powder behind a dense piece of lead requires.

    But back to biking…biking has changed my total miles traveled. I simply no longer want to jump in my car anymore and eat up the miles just because I can. And no statistic I’ve seen can capture that fact.

  • Rob Harrison says:

    Picking up an old thread here. Great stuff–thank you Alan! You might enjoy friend Alan Durning’s writing about those same statistics a few years ago, here:

    http://daily.sightline.org/daily_score/archive/2007/10/08/safe-streets-bicycle-neglect-7

    The whole Bicycle Neglect blog series, as well as Alan’s “The Year of Living Car-Lessly” series, is great reading and right up the alleys, so to speak, of many of the readers here.

    http://daily.sightline.org/daily_score/series/the-year-of-living-car-lessly-experiment

    Rob in Seattle

  • Lee Trampleasure says:

    Statistics, you gotta love them: I’m six times more likely to die from living than from bicycling :-)

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