Bicycling Becoming Safer

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 714 bicyclists were killed in collisions with automobiles in the U.S. in 2008. This number is down 29 percent from 1975. The decline among female bicyclists (50 percent) was larger than the decline among male bicyclists (24 percent).

The statistics in the IIHS report support what I’ve seen in other studies: early evening is the most dangerous time of day to ride, urban areas are more dangerous than rural areas, and major roads are more dangerous than minor roads.

Ninety-one percent of bicyclists killed weren’t wearing helmets. I don’t believe this number tells us much about helmet effectiveness because there’s no way to know if a higher rate of helmet use would have significantly changed the number of deaths. For a controlled study on helmet effectiveness, see Thompson, R.S.; Rivara, F.P.; and Thompson, D.C. 1989. A case-control study of the effectiveness of bicycle safety helmets. New England Journal of Medicine 320:1361-67.

While we already knew bicycling is a relatively safe activity (see here), it’s good to know our streets in the U.S. are getting even safer for bicyclists.

IIHS Fatality Facts 2008

15 Responses to “Bicycling Becoming Safer”

  • Doug R. says:

    Our streets may be getting safer, however, I see cell phone users and latt’e sipping soccer moms
    doing every activity but “Driving responsibly”!Wear A Helmet!, the statistics prove the survival rate of those who wear protective gear. I am one of those statistics! nuff said!

  • Scott says:

    Those numbers don’t really tell us anything about safety, because there’s no accounting for the total number of bicyclists. Bicycling was much more popular in 1975 in the U.S. than it is today, but the U.S. population was lower. Somehow I think there are fewer bicyclists now (compare pictures of schools & colleges then to today, for example), so fewer deaths is not surprising.

  • alan says:

    Yeah, for what it is worth, my dad for some unknown reason rode, at presumably lower speeds, into the back end of a parked SUV four years ago. Wearing a helmet he died of internal brain hemoragging a day later. One the one hand he was taking a blood thinner for heart reasons. That surely aggravated the situation, as he was fully conscious for some time after the accident. But the point is, I’m not convinced that helmets are always that effective. Sometimes, maybe often, but not always.

  • Tali says:

    “While we already knew bicycling is a relatively safe activity (see here), it’s good to know our streets in the U.S. are getting even safer for bicyclists.”

    Yes, cycling is safe. However, I would note the following about the statistics.

    1. 714 isn’t the lowest fatality count since 1975, 2000, 2002, 2003, and 2007 were “safer”. The body count seems to be stuck in the 650-850 range.

    2. The figures take no account of exposure. I would not conclude from “Percent of bicyclist deaths by age, 1975-2008″ that child cyclists are 5X safer in 2008 than 1975, because I have reason to suspect that <16 year olds cycle less than 20% as much as they did in 1975. Nor would I conclude from "Bicyclist deaths by age and road type, 2008" that Interstate and freeways are the safest roads for cycling. So even the rural/urban and time of day figures need to be taken with a pinch of salt. We need figures given in deaths per million miles cycled or better, deaths per million hours cycled.

  • Alan says:

    Industry figures support the notion that bicycle use in the U.S. is up since the 1970s. Contrasted against the numbers in the IIHS report, it’s reasonable to assume bicycling is, in fact, becoming safer.


  • Scott says:

    I’d like to see the industry figures you mention. I’m sure adult bicycle use is up, but for children through high school age, I’d bet they’re way down. As a kid in the 70’s and a high schooler in the early 80’s, there were huge bike racks at the schools, all filled to overflowing. Nowadays the school are larger, with 3-4 times more students, but often no bicycle racks at all. It’s hard to discern total use.
    It’s always safer to bicycle in an area where bicycling is more common; even if there is no difference in infrastructure, the drivers & cyclists are just more used to being around each other. And a driver who is also a bicyclist will be more careful around cyclists. Even with the increase in adult bicyclists, I’d bet many drivers in the U.S. these days have rarely been on a bicycle.

  • Alan says:

    Hey Scott,

    Here’s one study by Pucher et al that shows bicycle trips more than doubling from 1977-1995. I know it doesn’t cover the full range we’re discussing, but I’ve seen other studies that show similar results.

    Here’s a quote from the study:

    “As shown in Figure 1, US bicycling fatalities have stayed roughly constant since the mid-1970s, with a slight decline recently. Since the number of bike trips increased over the same period, there has evidently been a significant drop in the fatality rate per bike trip, and probably per mile cycled as well.”


  • Tali says:

    I’ve charted the Percent of bicyclist deaths by age, 1975-2008, table but showing total deaths rather than the percentages. I think this chart clearly illustrates that the decline in fatalities is completely due to a dramatic decline in child fatalities (< 16 years old). Adult cyclists deaths have increased by 90%.

    This is obviously a complex area, but my guess is that the data is consistent with a retreat of child cyclists from the roads along side gains in adult cycling with the risk of cycling remaining roughly constant or falling a little. But I'm no statistician and there is a lack of data in this area.

  • James says:

    Since early evening is the most dangerous time to ride, how effective are headlights, and taillights?
    Are more cyclist hit from behind, or head on?

    Jamestown, NC

  • Scott says:

    Thanks for that chart, Tali. It is very difficult to tell what’s really going on. And alongside the decline in child cycling (perhaps even related to the decline) is the increase in bicycle helmet laws for young riders. So we can’t even know how much of the decline in child deaths is from helmets as opposed to fewer riders.
    Whatever the case, it’s important to keep in mind that 650-850 fatalities per year recently is pretty small, given the number of cyclists and the fact that some of those are due to unsafe riding practices. If we’re careful riders, the odds are definitely very much in our favor that we’ll be okay.

  • A Bike Commuter says:

    Interesting raw data but I am hesitatent to draw conclusions without hard data regarding the number of cyclists, the number of trips, the number of miles ridden and/or the number of nous ridden. As it stands, we need to remember that the plural of ‘anecdotes’ is not data. Also, when n=1 an exprience rate off 100% is catastrophic.

    Bicycle laws are often skewed towards the motorist. Safe bicycle parking is hardly ubiquitous. The cycling industry is geared towards selling stuff so even though advocacy appears to be the long-term solution to increasing ridership and creating more consumers it is likely a long- term strategy and worth little more than lip service from an industry focusing on quarterly results. We are, I think, a long ways from widespread ‘safe’ cycling.

    I will try to do my part by riding defensively, wearing ‘normal’ clothes on most commutes and shopping trips, (generally) following the laws of the road, being considerate of others, and riding with my kids and their friends.

  • EricF says:

    Hmmm, yes, a lot has changed since 1975.
    I wonder if, as some have suggested, the statistics are just showing how bicycle usage has changed, and that bike fatalities happen where & when we bicyclists spend our time riding.
    Though if there are more total miles ridden, and a relatively constant number of deaths, that is certainly a positive trend.
    Anecdotally, it sure seems that bike miles are skewing toward older riders.
    And I’m curious how non-fatal crash numbers have changed.

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  • MohjhoRyder says:

    It would be hard to ignore the correlation between empty bike racks at elementary schools and a dramatic decline in child bicycle deaths. This says nothing about comparative safety over a time period for road riding. I actually remember 40 years ago an 8 year old schoolmate being killed by a car not 3 blocks from my house leaving the school grounds. The driver did nothing wrong, but the child just did not understand the danger.

  • peteathome says:

    Tali has an interesting point. The Pucher study states that the number of bicycle trips more than doubling between 1977 and 1995 and the bicycling “modal share” going up 50%. I would take the two together and say both total trips and miles have gone up significantly in that time.

    Meanwhile, deaths have fallen from about 1000 a year to 750. So safety by trip and probably mile has definitely gone up.

    15 and under bicycling deaths have fallen from about 700 to about 250 while 16 and over has gone up from 300 to 500.

    I doubt child bicycling has gotten that much safer compared to adult bicycling, so one possibility is the number of 15 and under bicyclists has dropped dramatically and the 16 and older group has increased dramatically. That matches my perceptions. It could be the reduction is deaths is simply due to more older bicyclists who are more familiar with the rules of the road and how to operate more safely.

    The study also notes that 57% of trips are social or recreational, so it is also possible that more trips are taking place off-road, while the 15 and under might have been mostly road trips. This doesn’t match my perceptions, as I remember plenty of recreational bicyclists from the 70s, but something to look into.

    As to the cause and situation of bicycle deaths, the venerable Cross-Fischer study is still the best. In urban areas, the vast majority of deaths are at intersections. Hit from behind or side-swipe fatalities are rare. Rural roads accounted for a large percentage of “hit from behind” or side-swipe fatalities, many of these after dark, so lack of reflectors or lighting may have been a factor.

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