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The Grapevine: Safety, Cycling, Injury and Death

Published December 26, 2019

Editor's note: A version of this article appeared first in the December issue of Bicycle Retailer and Industry News.

Safety, Cycling, Injury and Death: Let’s get straight to it: Cycling is a risky activity. When I took up cycling in a semi-serious way in the early 1980s, the more experienced riders who brought me along would joke that it was only a matter of time before I would feel the harsh grind of pavement. A few years later, while riding in a century, that half serious warning became reality. A badly broken clavicle, assorted abrasions and a massive hematoma that lingered for months. Ouch! And if I trust the posts I see to my Facebook page from various industry veterans, such accidents — road and mountain — continue to be a way of life. As they say, “shit happens.” And sooner or later that micro-second moment as the body hurtles toward pavement, gravel or rock will overtake even the best among us. And yes, some cyclists will break their neck, paralyzed forever. Or suffer so serious a brain injury they will never resume a normal life. And yes, some will lose their life. It is the way of cycling’s culture. Can’t softsoap it. And there’s nothing the industry can do to make active outdoor cycling as safe as pumping pedals on indoor trainers.  

Cycling Safety, Death and Hyperbole: Let’s set the scene: The National Highway Traffic Safety Board (NHTSA) recently released its tally of cycling deaths on the nation’s highways and byways — 857 fatals and a 6.3% increase over 2017. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) followed up with some recommendations to bring that number down as BRAIN noted in an article on its website recently. Suggestions included the following: Improve cycling infrastructure; urge all 50 states to pass laws mandating cyclists of all ages wear helmets; and encourage cyclists to use high visibility equipment — lights and bright outerwear. These seemingly common-sense suggestions sparked several dozen comments on our site, most of which derided the agency’s thinking. The NTSB, an independent federal agency, is best known for investigating airline and railroad accidents as well as highway, marine and pipeline disasters. And it can offer recommendations to improve safety in all these areas. While it can recommend, it can’t legislate. Leave that to Congress and the likes of Mitch McConnell, Senate Majority Leader, better known as the “Grim Reaper.” That’s a sobriquet he’s rightfully earned since any legislation passed by the House, led by Nancy Pelosi, hits his desk to die. Let me go out on a limb and state with a high degree of certainty that cycling safety is low on Mitch’s list. Imagine, just for a moment, Mitch and Nancy sitting down to discuss passing legislation to improve cycling safety. Hell is freezing over as I type this. 

What We Do Know: A 2016 study done by the NHTSA, which apparently has yet to be replicated, examined key factors in cycling fatalities. That year motorists killed 840 cyclists. As you might expect, most (71%) died in urban accidents, the remainder on rural roads. Fifty-one percent were killed in daylight hours, 5% died between dawn or dusk and, amazingly, 48% died at night. Winter months are by far the most dangerous. The average age among fatalities was 46 with 50- to 59-year-olds accounting for 24% of all deaths. Not surprisingly, men died at 5.6 times the rate of women. Children under age 15 tallied 7% of all fatalities. Alcohol usage among cyclists was a contributing factor in a quarter of all fatalities. Four percent, or 32 cyclists, had blood alcohol levels between .01 and .07. A staggering 21% of cyclists — 171 — had blood alcohol levels exceeding .08. The states with the highest number of deaths were California (147) Florida (138) and Texas (65). Los Angeles and New York were the most dangerous cities — 20 and 19 died respectively. There’s much more in this dated report, but much that isn’t. Arrest rates, conviction rates, type of fatal injury, other factors like helmet, light and outerwear usage, distracted driver data and more. If the industry was sincere in its quest to improve cycling safety, then lobby the NHTSA for more data. Hmmmm … or maybe the industry should fund that research. 

Cycling Infrastructure—Fuggedaboutit: First, hats off to PeopleForBikes for doing all they do and have done to improve cycling infrastructure. But with limited resources — think money — building support for the kind of cycling Nirvana as exists in some parts of Europe, so oft cited by BRAIN’s commentators, is far beyond PFB’s ability. More to the point, there’s no overwhelming public support for significant investments in cycling infrastructure at any level — city, county, state and most certainly federal. The fact that the NTSB suggests improvements in infrastructure is mere lip gloss. Nice but irrelevant. In the real world, at least for those of us who follow the broader issues of taxation at the city, county and state level, there’s little stomach to spend taxpayer dollars on major investments — a la Europe — on cycling projects. New York City may be an exception, but it’s a cat fight. For those who relish citing the marvelous cycling highways in highly affluent European countries (The Netherlands, Denmark etc.), that’s simple gum flapping. The U.S. is not Europe. We have no cycling culture that mirrors Europe’s. And, for the most part, Europe lacks the massive urban/suburban/exurban sprawl that characterizes the U.S. Plus, given the pathetic level of cycling participation, it’s unlikely that a pervasive cycling culture will flourish here soon. There’s just no passion among most Americans to spend tax dollars on cycling. Or spend time on a bike. This is not to say that pushing for better infrastructure is a pipe dream. But perspective, please. 

Helmets, Injuries and Fatalities: I’m much amused by those who aver that it’s their god given right whether to wear a helmet. I would agree. However, I would boldly state that these helmet deniers owe the commonweal a duty to carry health insurance that would cover minor or catastrophic head injuries. Or let the paramedics kick them to the curb. That sounds harsh. But I’m certain these freedom seekers wouldn’t want the state to pay for their medical care or worse support them for life, now would they? So, ride without a helmet — in defiance of common sense — but man up, or force your family to man up, and pay for your folly if and when such an accident befalls you. GoFundMe sites are not insurance programs. Yes, it’s most likely true that helmets would make little difference for those cyclists who die by vehicle. But helmets have become ubiquitous in all action sports; there must be a reason. And the specious argument that the Euros commute daily sans helmet is ridiculous. They sit upright, astride stable bikes, in an environment designed exclusively for cyclists. So, let’s can that canard. OK? 



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