Every time I come to Europe I am struck by how differently cyclists are treated here compared to the US. This week I am in France riding some of the iconic mountain passes of the Tour de France and watching a bit of the race. To escape the crush of race traffic most of our rides are well away from the race course, so we are interacting with drivers on their way to work, the grocery store, etc. But unlike the US, drivers are patient, generally courteous, and far less likely to yell, honk, or worse. Some athletes mentioned feeling safer on the roads in Europe compared to the US, which got me thinking about the risks on American roads.
Culture and Infrastructure
A big difference between the US and Europe is how integrated cycling is within European culture. Kids ride bikes to school and adults ride bikes for short trips in town. Depending on the area, tons of adults commute to work by bicycle. Drivers are not surprised to see bicycles, and compared to the US many more drivers in Europe have personal experience using a bicycle for transportation and/or exercise.
Around the world – including the US – areas with more cyclists on the road have lower rates of cycling-related injuries and fatalities. They may record higher absolute numbers of injuries and car-bicycle collisions because of greater participation, but the lower rate of injury has been interpreted to be a result of increased awareness among drivers that cyclists are likely to be on the road. It’s often referred to as a “safety in numbers” theory.
European infrastructure is also a lot different. In cities there are more bike lanes and bike paths, particularly ones that actually connect to the places you want to go. In smaller towns in the countryside and mountains, there are lots of traffic-calming devices (“road furniture” to racing cyclists) which effectively reduce the differential between cycling speed and car speed. This makes it easier for both cars and bikes to brake effectively to avoid a collision, and makes collisions less deadly. Roads are also narrower in towns and in the countryside. This is important for cyclists because wider roads encourage faster driving speeds, which again increases the speed differential between car and bicycle, making collisions harder to avoid and more deadly.
Changing the culture and infrastructure in the US will take time and lot of advocacy work, particularly because our car-dominated culture seems to perceive cyclists as law-breaking, free-loading elitists who don’t belong on roads at all and want taxpayers to foot the bill for cycling-oriented infrastructure so we can pretend we’re pro athletes or get in their way. The irony is that I’d be happy to stay out of the way but sometimes I can’t because there’s no room or better route. Which brings me back to whether the risks to road cyclists in the US are actually as high as we think.
Statistics and Social Media
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the number of traffic fatalities in the US is rising across most modes of transportation: auto driver, auto passenger, motorcyclist, pedestrian, and cyclist. From 2014-2016 pedestrians and cyclists experienced the greatest increases. The causes are less clear. Distracted driving and distracted walking almost definitely play roles. Some have tried to correlate gas prices to fatalities, citing that lower gas prices increase the number of younger, less experienced drivers on the road.
Looking at the data from 1994-2015, however, you notice there have been large fluctuations in annual cycling-related fatalities throughout the entire period, and the number has stayed within the range of about 600-800 deaths per year nationwide. And those numbers include anyone, any age, on any type of two-wheeled pedal-powered vehicle. Statistics have never been my strong suit, but the fatalities data doesn’t seem to indicate that cycling is substantially more dangerous now than it has been during any time since 1994. Unfortunately, what is hidden within these numbers is that fatalities among people under 20 years old have declined dramatically while fatalities among bicyclists older than 20 have increased.
One of the biggest changes we’ve seen since 1994, however, is the advent of social media. With on-board video cameras and smart phones we see and hear about many more close calls and collisions than ever before. Keep in mind, too, that based on algorithms, the more cycling-collision social media you view, the more those social media channels will direct those posts into your feeds. Athletes inundated with this information often express feeling more threatened and nervous than they used to on the roads. My question – and I don’t know the answer – is whether the threat level has actually increased, or whether it is has increased as substantially as people feel it has? How much of that interpretation is confirmation bias? You think you’re at greater risk so you perceive interactions with vehicles to put you at greater risk. But are we really experiencing more close calls than before, or are we just a lot more aware and vigilant about them?
Here’s another problem. When it comes to adults, statistics don’t differentiate between cycling athletes and “person on bike”. It’s a tragedy to see either hurt or killed; a cycling athlete on an expensive bike is no more or less valuable than a man or woman pedaling a Walmart bike to work. However, if a substantial portion of the recent increases in cycling fatalities (2006-2015) were “person on bike”, what does that means for the risk to cycling athletes training and touring on suburban streets and country roads?
The data below from 2015 may offer some insight into this question:
- The average age of bicyclists killed in crashes with motor vehicles continues to increase, climbing to 45 years old in 2014, up from 39 in 2004, 32 in 1998, and 24 in 1988. (This reflects the dramatic decline of bicycling fatalities among people younger than 20.)
- 17% of bicyclists killed were wearing helmets (54% were not, and helmet use was unknown in 29% of crashes).
- Of bicyclist fatalities involving people over 20 years old, 75 percent of those killed were male.
- 71 percent of bicyclist fatalities occurred in urban areas.
- 41 percent of bicyclist fatalities occurred between 6pm and midnight
- 23 percent of bicyclists killed had blood alcohol concentrations of 0.08 g/dL or higher (175/775 in 2015)
- In 35 percent of the crashes, either the driver or the bicyclist had blood alcohol concentrations of 0.08 g/dL or higher.
The picture that starts to get painted by the data above is that cycling athletes in suburban and rural areas, riding on minor roads during the day represent a relatively low number of cycling fatalities. Think about your behaviors as a cycling athlete and how they correlate with those statistics. Where and when are you riding, with or without a helmet? Part of the reason I included the helmet data point is that helmet use has become so ubiquitous among cycling athletes that a large number of the non-helmeted bicyclists killed may fit into the “person on bike” category.
Again, and I think this has to be reiterated, I am not suggesting “person on bike” is any less valuable as a human being. Nor am I blaming the victim. This is not a case of “They rode bicycles at night on city streets, possibly drunk and without a helmet, so it was their fault.” No. Not at all. All I’m suggesting is that cycling athletes who feel threatened training on suburban or rural roads during the day may be overestimating their actual risk.
I have ridden all over the world and all over the US, in big cities and rural areas, with and without bike lanes or substantial shoulders. I have had close passes, encountered the texting teens, been yelled at, had sodas and spittoons thrown at me, and even had a gun pulled on me by a motorist during my commute home. With the exception of the texting drivers (which has only been a problem in the last 10-15 years) what hasn’t really changed is how often they occur. I may be in the minority here, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter, but I’m not convinced the individual risk to cycling athletes in the United States has substantially increased over the past 10 years.
The biggest lessons I’ve learned in my years are to always pay attention, follow the law (stop signs, stop lights, etc.), ride predictably, assume cars don’t see you (ride defensively but assertively), and keep riding! Our presence on the road makes us safer in the long run by conditioning drivers to expect us to be there. And call out riders – both cycling athletes and people on bikes – when their behavior endangers the rest of us. Positive change is coming, and we all play a role in it.
CEO/Head Coach of CTS