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Cycling’s risks and a few solutions

A reader asks just how dangerous is cycling on American roads and what we can do to make it safer.

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Dear Explainer,
I wanted to thank you for your column on the tragic death of our fellow cyclist Kevin Flock. I think it’s not presumptuous to say that all of us who read that story feel for Kevin’s family and his friend Jo Morrison. It was a painful story to read, but I appreciate that VeloNews cared enough to do it.

As the title suggested, it really did put the spotlight on a face behind the statistics. But what are those statistics? How many of us are killed each year and how do our statistics here in the U.S. compare to places where bicyclists seem to be more socially accepted? I, for example, spent a semester in Copenhagen, Denmark, and found that I just felt safer riding my bike, not to mention that it was probably the easiest and fastest way to get around that beautiful city. Returning home, I felt like I had been dropped back into a war zone whenever I hit the streets.

How dangerous is cycling in the U.S. and what can we do to make it safer?
Mary Nichols
New York, New York

Dear Mary,
I have to agree. I have always felt just a bit safer riding my bike in some densely populated European cities than I have even on the wide-open roads Wyoming, where I live now.

Bicyclist deaths by gender, 1975-2008 (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety)

The numbers tend to bear out that. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 714 bicyclists were killed by motor vehicles in 2008 (the most recent year for which they have complete data). That figure accounts for about 2 percent of all fatalities involving automobiles, with 37,261 total deaths resulting from auto-related crashes that same year. A further breakdown of the numbers shows that of non-motorists killed by automobiles, about 85 percent were pedestrians, with the 714 cycling-related fatalities accounting for about 12 percent (and rollerbladers, skateboarders and others rounding out the total).

The numbers are frightening, but the good news is that there has been a slight downward trend over the past 30 years, dropping 29 percent since 1975. That said, the numbers began rising again in 2003 and we have to keep an eye on the statistics to see if that was merely an aberrant spike or a signal of a new upward trend.

Risk per mile?

Getting a precise breakdown of the actual risks per mile is a bit more difficult, but a rough analysis of 2005 fatalities would suggest that riders are between three and 10 times more likely to die per mile travelled than are drivers. Part of the problem in getting a precise number is that it’s hard to put an exact figure on how many miles riders actually put in on American roads over the course of a single year. A 2001 study by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics concluded that cyclists put in about 6.2 billion miles a year in the U.S. Another study puts that number as high as 21 billion. (Lest you swell with pride at those numbers, there is another statistic from the 2001 BOTS study that shows that American drivers cover around 3 trillion miles a year.)

Now, how does that compare with Europe? Well, your gut feeling — that you were safer — is actually supported by the numbers. As an example, when you compare U.S. numbers with Europe’s, a cyclist riding down a kilometer on an American road is three times as likely to be killed or injured as would his German counterpart and six times more likely than a rider in the Netherlands, covering the same distance.

Not only are European riders at a lower risk, they tend to ride more, too. Let’s try to compare a few numbers, focusing on where the bicycle is best used as basic transportation: the relatively short urban commute. According to a summary of data supplied by the ministries and departments of transportation from European Community member countries, cycling — and its even more low-tech cousin, walking — account for about a fourth of all urban trips.

We Americans tend to rely on motors to move ourselves from A to B more than 90 percent of the time. The famously bike-friendly American city of Davis, California, sees about 25 percent of its population regularly rely on bikes for basic transportation. Not bad for a city of 65,000. Now, compare that with Delft in the Netherlands. In that city of 96,000 about 40 percent of intra-city trips are made by bike. If you add in the walkers, the percentage bumps up beyond 60. In the even larger city of Groningen (population 185,000), the number of urban trips on bikes shoots up to 50 percent.

Remarkably, population and automobile density may not be the deciding factor for potential riders. One 2002 study concluded that in those communities where bicycle use is at its highest, the per-mile risk of a fatal encounter with an automobile drops. A 2003 study of cycling habits in Bonn, Germany, showed that the more cyclists out there on the road, made all of them less likely to be injured or killed. The lower the risk, the more likely commuters are to chose two wheels over four, further lowering the risk and encouraging even more riders to hit the roads … und so weiter, und so weiter.

394It’s hard to point at the specific factors at play when comparing statistics from California with Denmark or Wyoming with Germany. There are the obvious infrastructure differences, with many European communities devoting significant resources to providing distinct and physically separated bike lanes from urban automobile traffic. American and European cars differ in size. There are cultural differences in countries where cyclists are viewed as part of the traffic flow and here, where drivers often see us as just another pain-in-the-rear infringement of their “right” to drive.

One key element at play in several countries is the automatic presumption that the driver is at fault in auto/cyclist collisions. Hit a cyclist with your car in Holland, Great Britain or Denmark and you will be cited. Here in the U.S., there have been some frightening studies that suggest quite the opposite. A 1999 review of crash statistics in your own city of New York, for example, found that in auto/cyclist and auto/pedestrian accidents resulting in fatalities, drivers were determined to be significantly at fault in about 80 percent of those cases. Unfortunately, nearly three-quarters of them were not cited for a violation.

What to do?

Making roads safer for cyclists obviously has immediate economic, environmental and health benefits. Obviously, bicyclists — despite the occasional breakfast burrito — don’t come close to releasing the levels of pollutants as do cars on their morning commute. The more people ride, the lower their risk of those diseases commonly associated with sedentary lifestyles. The more people ride, the fewer miles they travel in their cars, depressing demand for carbon fuels, especially imported oil. Hey, but I’m preachin’ to the choir here, ain’t I?

What’s interesting is that that Congress seems to be hearing that sermon, too. While anyone who watches cable news programming might think that Democrats and Republicans can agree on little more than their mutual dislike for one another, it seems that there is at least some unanimity when it comes to the wisdom of investing in the infrastructure necessary to encourage Americans to ride their bikes.

Federal investments in bicycle-related facilities and programs doubled in the year between 2008 and 2009. Much of that came in funds allocated through the Safe Accountable Flexible Efficient Transportation Act: A Legacy for Users,” or SAFETEA-LU. (Okay, okay, we have another point of agreement in that politicians from both sides of the aisle like to plop long weird names and unwieldy acronyms on major legislation.)

Much of that money comes from federal fuel taxes. In my book, that seems to be a wise use of those funds, given that the bicycle remains the most reasonable, accessible and affordable form of “alternative transportation” on the planet. I would venture to say that building safe commuting routes in American cities will have a much greater return on investment than, say, widening local roads to accommodate more Hummers and F-350 pickem-up trucks operated by single drivers.

Cycling advocates have been aggressive and quite successful in bringing the issue to the attention of members of Congress. The League of American Bicyclists, the Alliance for Biking and Walking and Bikes Belong should get a great deal of credit for successful lobbying efforts. Federal investments in bicycling has grown substantially over the last 18 years. In 1992, Congress allocated about $20 million. Last year, it was $1.4 billion.

We’re bike geeks and we vote

It’s a bipartisan issue that has drawn support from all quarters. I admit, back in the days when I first started riding seriously, cyclists were pretty much a crowd of Birkenstock-wearing, mirror-on-the-helmet, tree-hugging Democrats. I still am (well, I did get rid of the mirror).

But the appeal of bicycling long ago transcended party affiliation. The House of Representatives’ Congressional Bike Caucus now boasts 182 members. The members represent both parties and come from 43 states. That’s not bad. On the Senate side, there are 16 members. I figure any time you can get Charles Schumer (D-NY), Bernie Sanders (Socialist-VT), Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) all singing from the same page, you’ve got something special.

Part of the credit has to go to Bikes Belong, which probably runs the most serious cycling-related lobbying effort in Congress. The organization’s efforts have been successful with members from both parties and in both houses, due in no small part to the talents of Washington lobbyist Mike Tongour.

Tongour is an aggressive and savvy operator who spent many years as a senior legislative strategist for several top Republicans on the Hill, most recently as chief counsel to former GOP Whip of the Senate, Alan K. Simpson. Tongour’s Republican credentials go way back and he’s been quite successful in making cycling’s case to some of the most conservative members of Congress (and as a former colleague of his, I can attest that I’ve never seen Tongour in Birkenstocks or hugging a tree).

Act locally

While the federal investment in infrastructure is a big step, a lot of the work needs to be done at the local level.

If your city has a record that reflects the above-mentioned statistic — where three-quarters of drivers aren’t even cited in accidents in which they had some responsibility — make sure the city council knows. Join a local advocacy group and look at the records.

If your county attorney views cyclists as something akin to wildlife on the road and won’t pursue even the most egregious offenses, organize and vote. District attorneys and county prosecutors are generally elected positions. In many communities, the only people interested in those races are local attorneys, victims and former defendants. A well-organized effort in your community just might change the way those cases are handled.

When your local community begins to see its share of SAFETEA-LU or other funds, make sure that cyclists have a voice in planning on how those dollars are spent.

One word of warning, though — try to be polite and professional. All of us feel the outrage that drives many cyclists to organize loud, aggressive and disruptive efforts like the Critical Mass rides that block traffic in major cities now and then. Cyclists have a reason to be angry … but that anger rarely translates into effective action when it comes to getting things done.

Join groups like the League of American Cyclists, Bikes Belong, Rails to Trails or any of the number of effective local groups around the country.

No matter where you put your time, money and/or energy, it may take a big effort by all of us to make sure American streets and roads are safe for all us. In the immortal words of Joe Hill, “Don’t mourn, organize.”

Now let’s get to work.

Email Charles Pelkey

“The Explainer” is a regular feature on If you have a question related to the sport of cycling that our editors might be able to answer, feel free to send your query to and we’ll take a stab at answering. Not all letters will be published and some questions may be combined with those of other readers. Please include your full name and hometown.