Monday, June 2, 2014

Challenging Assumptions About Bicycle "Accidents"

Being hit from behind by a passing car is probably the biggest fear that many cyclists have when sharing the road with car traffic. It is that fear that keeps many cyclists hugging the far right shoulder of the road. It is that fear which makes many inexperienced and ignorant cyclists ride the "wrong way," going against traffic instead of with it. And it is that fear, I believe, that keeps many bicycle riders off the road entirely.

For years, savvy cyclists have said that such fears were unfounded, and that being hit from behind is statistically only a slight possibility. John Forester's Effective Cycling -- practically the bible of the concept known generally as "vehicular cycling" -- points to accident studies conducted in 1974 and 1980 to support that very notion. In my own review of Forester's book, I questioned the results of those studies. Not that they weren't accurate when they were conducted -- but a lot has changed since 1980, notably the rise of cell phones. I questioned whether the results of a comprehensive accident study today, when as many as a third of all drivers at any given moment might be distracted by cell phone use (either talking or texting) would show a different picture.

The Every Bicyclist Counts report
can be downloaded free from the
League of American Bicyclists.
The League of American Bicyclists looks into the changing nature of bicycle accidents in a new report that can be downloaded from their website. Every Bicyclist Counts is both a report of findings from a year of tracking fatal bicycle accidents and a memorial to some of those killed.

In the introduction to the report, LAB President Andy Clarke writes, "For a 12-month period, we set about the grim task of tracking and documenting every fatal traffic crash involving a bicyclist captured by relevant internet search terms. We also wanted a place to remember the victims and raise the hope that their deaths would at least inform efforts to prevent such tragedies in the future."

The project documented 628 fatal bike crashes, which the LAB says is a large percentage of the official number of such incidents recorded by authorities (726, according to the NHTSA). Much of the data for the EBC study was provided by Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), which is maintained by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In addition to the basic information on where and how these crashes occurred, the group also looked into the nature of the reporting of the incidents through the media, whether or not blame was assigned, and what happened to the motorists involved. "The results are sobering, eye-opening, and critically helpful in informing the current debate about the need for a non-motorized traffic safety performance measure," said Clarke.

One of the "sobering, eye-opening" statistics revealed in the report is that hit-from-behind collisions, sometimes described as "motorist overtaking bicyclist" incidents, account for 40% of all the fatalities. In an interview with Bicycle Retailer and Industry News (BRAIN) Clarke said, "It doesn't matter how many times you say, 'well statistically that doesn't happen very often.' When you read about (a fatal crash) in the paper, that's what happened." He went on to explain that "those crashes where someone gets hit from behind tend to be higher speed crashes and so they are more likely to be fatal."

Clarke continued, "For the longest time it's been an article of faith that we should be taking the lane, and that separated bike facilities are unnecessary . . . well, I think we are grown up enough now to say that's not the case. Most people feel more comfortable actually having a paved shoulder or a cycle track or having a buffered or protected bike lane, and those things will reduce the fear and the incidence of being hit from behind. And we shouldn't feel bad or awkward about saying that." (BRAIN)

In looking through the EBC report, I found something of interest regarding other factors involved in the recorded fatalities. Out of 238 crashes where additional factors were reported about the driver of the car, 42% of the drivers were reported to be operating their car in a careless or inattentive manner -- and while the report didn't specify the fact, I have really no doubt that "careless or inattentive" is in most cases cell-phone related. 36% were reported to have committed hit-and-run -- which I find absolutely appalling. Lastly, 12% were reported to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. If I'm correct about the cell-phone use, that would make talking and/or texting while driving more dangerous and deadly to cyclists than alcohol.

The EBC report looked into media reports of bicycle related accidents and found numerous problems, though this should come as no surprise to anyone who follows this issue. The EBC states, "In many instances the media reports take the perspective of the motorist in a motorist-bicyclist crash, by explaining, for example how a motorist failed to notice a bicyclist due to sun glare or dark clothing." In the BRAIN interview, the LAB's Clarke added, "Unfortunately, our suspicions were confirmed that police don't report on these kinds of incidents in a constructive manner. When there is a fatal crash and the driver sticks around, you hear their side of the story: 'The cyclist darted out in front of me.' I don't know how we can believe that, there is just no way of verifying that that's what happened." Clarke continued, "Often times the police are working on the assumption that the bicyclist shouldn't have been on the road in the first place. They are pre-disposed to say the cyclist made a mistake just by being there. That kind of bias is going to take years to overcome."

Another area explored in the EBC study was the section on consequences and enforcement. Unfortunately, the actual data was somewhat incomplete, as that information is not always reported, and appears to be harder to find. There was apparently a lack of information in many cases about whether drivers were charged with any kind of crime, and if so, what kind of sentence was given. In many cases where information was available, defendants took "no contest" pleas, or took plea bargains. Jail time is apparently very rare except in the most extreme cases, and in cases where a driver's license is suspended, those suspensions could be as low as six months. But overall, out of the more than 600 fatalities studied, information (however incomplete) was only available in 285 of the cases, and final sentences were only reported in 77.

As mentioned, the EBC is not only a report on bicycling fatalities, but is also a memorial to some of those killed. Interspersed throughout the report are profiles on some of those killed, with photos of the victims, and some of the memories their friends and family could share about them.

The Every Bicyclist Counts report is not a complete study of bicycle-related traffic accidents, in that it only studies fatalities, not those incidents that result in rider injuries however serious or minor they might be. But it's worth reading, and my hope is that the study can be used to get something done by state departments of transportation, and in the state houses. Perhaps state governors and legislators who are reluctant to pass (or toughen) cell phone and texting legislation because they don't want to "micromanage adult behavior" will finally wake up and do something right for a change.


  1. I've commented before that I was involved in an accident. Young girl on her cell phone pulled out in front of me, though right-of-way was clearly mine. She "didn't see me" though I was lit up like a christmas tree, and reflective bits all over.
    I believe that anybody that gets into an accident due to being distracted by their phones ought to be handled in the same manner as a alcohol-related accident. If they kill somebody, then it ought to be considered manslaughter. It seems that there's a much lower level of accountability expected when a driver hits a biker, and I cannot understand why that is.

    However... something that is an impediment to the cycling community's success is the uneducated riders. People that "salmon" up the road, no lights at night, weaving through traffic/acting wildly unpredictable, crossing streets wherever (rather than at intersections) are all nuisance behaviors that make drivers believe that cyclists don't belong on the road.

    This quote-"Often times the police are working on the assumption that the bicyclist shouldn't have been on the road in the first place. They are pre-disposed to say the cyclist made a mistake just by being there. That kind of bias is going to take years to overcome." Boy howdy, ain't that a mouthful right there. Sadly true. I saw a police officer on a bike just this past weekend riding down the sidewalk. While part of me always likes to see police on bikes (seems like a smart way to patrol through the city, and it should reinforce the notion that bikes belong on the street), this had me shaking my head.


    1. Thanks for the comments, Wolf -- needless to say, I agree totally.

    2. "However... something that is an impediment to the cycling community's success is the uneducated riders. People that "salmon" up the road, no lights at night, weaving through traffic/acting wildly unpredictable, crossing streets wherever (rather than at intersections) are all nuisance behaviors that make drivers believe that cyclists don't belong on the road."

      I think you've got cause and effect the wrong way round here.

      People behave this way because no one ever taught them any different, and there are few examples of other cyclists that they can follow. Parents teach their children to ride against traffic, on the sidewalk, and to "stay out of the way of cars."

      The entire culture, including police and judges, operates on the assumption that bicycles don't belong on the road, so it never occurs to people who come to cycling with no guidance that they should follow the rules of the road like vehicular traffic.

    3. Thanks for reading that, and offering your thoughts but I have nothing mixed up.

      "People behave this way because no one ever taught them any different, "
      So... uneducated?

    4. My point is that this kind of behavior is not the cause of motorist's hostility towards cyclists. Rather it is the hostility of our culture towards cycling that causes this kind of behavior, since there are so few good examples to learn from, among other reasons.

    5. There's also no shortage of good examples and preachers for good driving, but people texting whilst driving haven't had their attention affected, apparently. Sorry, it isn't nebulous society's hostility towards bicyclists that keeps me from assuming I'm equal with a Toyota Tundra or minivan. It's the common sense that my mass on a bicycle is negligible compared to a motorist.

      There's no supposed persecution happening, it's more ignorance flagrant disregard of the law.

  2. It's interesting to see how the LAB concludes that "it's not safe to take the lane" and "we need separate facitlities." There is nothing in the data that indicates whether the cyclists hit from behind were taking the lane or not, but considering that few cyclists do, it's likely that they were hugging the right curb (and maybe even weaving in and out of parked cars), yet still got hit and killed.

    Also, the study makes the "hit from behind" look more important, since the "intersection accidents" are split into numerous small categories. If you add up the intersection accidents, you get 37% of fatalities, hardly an endorsement of separate facilities (cyclepaths) that increase the risks at intersections.

    Finally, for 23% of the accidents, the cause was “unknown”. (These weren’t counted in the analysis.) Not only does this introduce a large error into the analysis, but it’s likely that many of these “unknowns” are more complicated accidents at intersections, rather than the simple “hit from behind”. So even if the LAB analysis is correct, it does not indicate that “being hit from behind” is by far the greatest danger…

    So when you take the comments of the LAB president, it seems that there is a clear bias toward proving that cycling on the road with cars is dangerous, even though the data doesn't show it.

    1. Hi Jan -- I'm really glad to get a comment from you -- I've been reading your blog for a while now, along with BQ magazine. I agree with you that the LAB study is incomplete in some ways -- for one thing, as I pointed out (as does the introduction to the study) that it only looks at fatal accidents -- not at those causing injuries, some of which could still be very severe. And, as you mention, there are some "unknowns" in the study, which lead to more questions. Still -- I do not necessarily interpret the study, or Clarke's comments, to say exactly "it's not safe to take the lane" -- but rather, that there might be places and situations where separate facilities would be beneficial. Does it show a bias towards separate facilities, or an attitude that riding on the road is dangerous? That might be a question of interpretation.

      My concern about car-bike accidents is that hit-from-behind accidents seem to be increasing -- whether or not it's the greatest danger, it's still pretty significant. Understand that I follow the advice outlined in Effective Cycling, I take the lane, and when it comes to intersections, I feel like I have a lot more control over accidents, through careful observation of other vehicles, and through good lane placement for myself. But there is so little one can do about a hit-from-behind.

      You'll notice that in my post about the LAB study, I mention that my hope is not that it might lead to more separate facilities, but rather that it might lead to more restrictions on cell phone use -- whether talking or texting. Unfortunately, the study only lists "careless or inattentive driving" as a factor -- not specifying cell phone use. I'd really like to see a thorough study on that as a factor in cyclists' deaths or serious injuries, because just based on what I see daily -- whether I'm on my bike or in my car -- I am absolutely convinced that it is a serious threat.

  3. Both this and the discussion on Jan Heine's blog are good discussions. Unfortunately, they are being held by cyclists. It would be more effective if this topic were being discussed by motorists. The fact that cycling is safer in countries where there are more cyclists and more responsibility placed on the 'less vulnerable' car driver, demonstrates how driver education would be the greatest benefit to cycling safety. After all, children become 'pedestrians' in the first couple of years of life, and many cycle by school age. But we don't allow driving a motor vehicle until the late teens, and only then with instruction, licensing and enforcement.

    1. Thanks for the comments -- I really do believe (and have mentioned it in other posts) that drivers' ed. in the US should include bicyclist's rights, and how to share the road with cyclists.

  4. Thank you for posting this and for your analysis as to sensible interpretation and use of the data set. In their determination to make cyclists equal to cars, Savvy Cyclists often refuse to accept inconvenient viewpoints and data (which in my experience has been pretty thin relative to sussing these sorts of issues reliably). This information will hopefully result in more reasoned approaches to the problem. The Savvy Cyclist/Forrester acolytes I've discussed this particular issue with are about as intractable in their opinions wrt overtaking accidents as many anti-cyclist automobile drivers are with theirs. Having spent three years reconstructing fatal vehicular accidents, to have someone tell me, point blank, that this sort of accident doesn't happen or is statically insignificant just leaves me shaking my head in amazement, and convinces me that their idealogical agenda, not rational thought, is in control.

  5. just prior to rediscovering bicycles - after a 40+ year hiatus - i was somewhat peeved to find myself stuck behind a bicyclist who was ascending the hill by our house in the middle of the road. my initial reaction was "get the f--- out of the way." now, when i climb that hill on a bike, i see the wisdom of him "taking the road" in the way he did. there's a blind bend in the road just before the crest of the hill that - can - put on-coming traffic in the way of anyone trying to squeeze past me and my bike. ah-ha!

    i think that riding a bicycle as you would drive a car is probably the best way to stay alive. when turning, i try to signal, even when i don't see or hear traffic behind me and i always acknowledge a driver's courtesy. on the whole, here in italy, drivers are used to sharing the road with bicyclists.

    there doesn't appear to be a tradition amongst cyclists of warning others when passing, however. always a shock when someone whooshes past me from out of nowhere.

    great blog, incidently - informative and well written. if you would care to visit, here's a FB site devoted to OBOB's:

    1. Thanks for the comments - and the FB link. I'll check it out!