The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), a non-profit group representing state transportation safety departments, regularly issues reports highlighting safety concerns on the nation’s roads. The group uses that information to push for stricter laws on topics such as distracted driving, seat belt use and motorcycle helmet laws.
But rarely do those reports come under fire the way that the group’s report last week on bicyclist safety did. The report, written by the former head scientist for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Allan Williams, highlighted a 16 percent upswing in cyclist fatalities between 2010 and 2012. It also detailed data on how many of the killed cyclists had been wearing helmets or were under the influence of alcohol when they died.
Cyclist groups pounced on the report. They criticized the group’s methodology and the report’s focus on cyclist behavior, rather than inadequate infrastructure, in contributing to bicyclist deaths. They also panned media coverage of the report, including Governing’s story and a Los Angeles Times piece that included a photo of a test dummy and bike flying through the air after being hit by a car.
“There is a lot of sensitivity in the bike world around safety questions, because safety is the biggest barrier to people riding bikes,” said Martha Roskowski, director of the green lane project for People for Bikes.
People don’t worry about safety when they walk or drive somewhere, but they do when they consider biking. That affects all cyclists, Roskowski said, because the more people who bike, the safer biking becomes. Drivers are less likely to hit cyclists when they expect them on the roads, she explained.
Jonathan Adkins, executive director of GHSA, stood by the report, which did include information on the long-term decline in cyclist deaths.
The reason for pointing out the recent increase in fatalities is to make changes before more deaths occur, Adkins said.
“Let’s take action now, and not just accept increased deaths as something we have no control over. Every one of those deaths is preventable. These are not just random acts that occur,” he said. “We’re not willing to accept that an increased number of deaths are a cost or a trade-off to more riding.”
The debates over the report, in many cases, are over how to make sense of the limited data available about U.S. bike use and safety.
Here is a look at some of the bigger points of contention.
How often do people bike?
One of the main reasons debating bike safety (compared to other types of traffic safety) is so difficult is the limited data available on how often people bike. The missing data is crucial to understanding the root causes of safety trends. For example, we don’t know whether the increase in the number of fatalities from 2010 to 2012 came as more people decided to bike.
To understand why the data is limited, think about what interaction one has with the government when using a bike. There's no driver’s license, vehicle registration or proof of insurance as for a motor vehicle. There are no fuel taxes. And, in most places, the chances of a parking ticket or a traffic violation are pretty slim.
The federal government does collect some data on bike use, though. The most frequently cited information is survey response from the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey, which asks people every year how they commute to work. The survey only asks respondents about the longest portion of their commute, so someone who bikes to a subway stop would only count as a subway user, for instance.
So it is only a proxy for how many people ride their bikes overall. And Roskowski noted that work commutes are some of the toughest trips to take on a bicycle, because they are longer and more time-sensitive than other errands.
But since the beginning of the Great Recession, the number of bicyclist deaths declined in years when the number of bike commuters declined and increased when the number of bike commuters increased.
The Federal Highway Administration compiles more detailed use of bike use through its National Household Travel Survey. The last time that survey was done, though, was in 2009, and it is next scheduled to go into the field in 2015. That leaves long gaps in data to match up with yearly fatality and injury numbers.
“The bicycle community wants to talk about: What is the fatality rate? Well, there’s no accurate way to do that,” said GHSA’s Adkins. “There is no accurate rate, so we only looked at the raw number of fatalities.”
How many years of fatality numbers are needed to spot a trend?
The GHSA report focused on the 16 percent increase in fatalities between 2010 and 2012. That is the second-highest percentage increase in fatalities over a two-year period since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration started collecting data on traffic deaths in 1975.
“In highway safety, three years’ worth of data typically gives you a good baseline for what’s going on,” Adkins said.
The biggest jump came between 2003 and 2005, when fatalities went up by 25 percent. Generally speaking, the numbers of cyclist traffic deaths rise during periods of economic recovery.
But critics said a two-year time period is too short to draw any meaningful conclusions. That is especially true because the number of annual cycling deaths seems to have decreased overall over the last four decades, even while the U.S. population grew by 100 million people.
“Just looking at that very, very short period is not representative. It gives the impression that cycling is getting so dangerous. Just looking over cycling over those two years is misleading,” said urban planning professor John Pucher of Rutgers University.
The number of traffic deaths is only one measure of cyclist safety, he added, and it can be more volatile than the number of reported injuries. The number of cyclists injured in traffic actually decreased by 6 percent between 2010 and 2012, according to NHTSA estimates. The number of cyclists who needed medical attention—not just those in an accident with a motor vehicle—also declined by 3 percent during that time frame, estimated the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The role of cyclist behavior vs. infrastructure
The GHSA paper called for states to pass laws requiring all cyclists to wear helmets, a move no state has taken for adult cyclists.
“Helmet use significantly reduces the risk of injury in crashes,” agreed Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
“When people are killed riding bicycles, a head injury is the most common serious injury in those crashes. So putting on a helmet is the single, most important thing a cyclist can do to reduce their risk,” he said.
One of the reason cycling advocates are wary of a mandated-helmet law is they think it will discourage people from cycling at all. GHSA, in its report, cited research of other countries where such laws had passed that concluded the drop-off never occurred or was only temporary.
But Pucher, the Rutgers professor who criticized the report, said public health researchers disagree over the need for mandatory helmet laws for cyclists. That is a marked difference from the “unanimity” in support for mandatory helmet laws for motorcyclists, he said, because motorcycles are heavier, travel faster and always operate in traffic.
He also criticized GHSA’s emphasis on cyclist behavior, with graphics highlighting that two-thirds of cyclists who were killed were not wearing helmets and that a quarter of deaths were of cyclists impaired by alcohol.
“The combination of things suggested that: Number one, if only people would wear helmets, then cycling would be safe. Number two, that, in a way, it’s a cyclists’ own fault because they’re not wearing a helmet or they’re drunk,” Pucher said.
GHSA did call for better cycling infrastructure, such as marked bike lanes, traffic calming measures, bike boxes in front of traffic at intersections and separate bicycle traffic signals.
That is where Roskowski, of People for Bikes, said safety officials’ emphasis should be, because “well-designed infrastructure breeds good behavior.”
“Part of the angst about the GHSA report is that it is all behavioral focused. It feels really old school,” she said.