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.
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.