Why Bike Deaths Are on the Rise in the U.S.

The recent rise in cycling fatalities has been outpace by increased ridership.
The recent rise in cycling fatalities has been outpace by increased ridership. Evan Chen / Getty Images

A study made headlines this week by reporting that cyclist deaths are up 16-percent in the U.S. The study, from the Governors Highway Safety Association, tracked the number of cyclists killed in fatal collisions with automobiles. Between 2010 and 2012, that number increased from 621 to 722 per year.

But those findings aren’t cause for alarm, says Dr. Allan Williams, author of the study. “The number of bike fatalities has been much higher in the past,” he points out, “and there are more cyclists on the roads than ever before.” Just ten years ago, for example, annual fatalities was at 784.

Tim Blumenthal, president of the bicycle advocacy organization PeopleForBikes, seconds the importance of perspective. “It’s a mistake to look at such a short period of time when the longer-term view shows a more complete picture.”

That big picture is promising. Over the past 25 years the number of U.S. bike rides has tripled to nearly 4.5 billion per year while deaths are down about 30 percent, says Blumenthal. The takeaway is simple: With more cyclists on the streets and fewer deaths per year, Americans are currently safer on their bikes than ever before. “Cycling in the U.S. is not as safe as it should be,” Blumenthal admits, “but we’re cautiously optimistic.”

When it comes to preventing future fatalities, both men agree: infrastructure is key. Barriers that separate bike lanes from motor vehicles have proven to be most effective in keeping cyclists safe. The number of these protected bike lanes in the U.S. has quadrupled in the last three years. However, Williams admits that it can be difficult to fit them into existing environments. In their absence, unprotected bike lanes, paths, and bike-specific traffic signals can also help riders stay safe.

There are also plenty of simple ways to look out for your own safety, whether you’re piloting two wheels or four. Williams advises that cyclists wear brightly colored clothing and a helmet — his research shows that 2/3 of fatally injured bicyclists in 2012 weren't wearing helmets.

Blumenthal tells riders to make eye contact with drivers when possible. “When you look motorists directly in the eye, you can better understand their intentions.” And of course, be responsible about boozing and biking. More than a quarter of fatal accident victims had a blood alcohol content greater than 0.08. 

Behind the wheel, Williams suggests that a little respect can go a long way. “If everyone obeyed traffic laws, it would ease a lot of the tension between motor vehicles and bikes.” Put the phone down, and pay attention to speed limits and traffic signals.