What’s Behind the Rise in Bike Fatalities?

Studies suggest a number of factors — including negative attitudes toward cyclists

Robert Roy Britt
Elemental
Published in
4 min readJul 10, 2019

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Credit: peterspiro/Getty Images

BBicycling along any road, especially a busy one, comes with risks. But a steady rise in cyclist deaths has riders worried. Bicyclist fatalities in the United States — while relatively small overall compared to other risks like driving — rose 25% from 2010 to 2017, the most recent year studied. In New York City, through early July 2019, there have already been 14 cycling deaths, compared to a total of about 17 per year in the past. This included a recent “spate of three deaths in a little over a week,” which the New York Times called a cycling-death “emergency.” And while bicycling deaths used to involve mostly children, the average age of victims is now 45.

The rising death toll among cyclists is attributed in part to perennial factors like unsafe road conditions ( lack of bike lanes), driver inattention, and poor cyclist visibility, as well as the increased popularity of cycling. In addition, an underlying cause has emerged: negative attitudes toward cyclists.

Drivers scanned only a narrow area before turning right, according to eye-tracking software. Image: University of Toronto

MMultiple studies have found that while road safety has improved for automobiles — from street layouts and car designs to improved rules of the road — the same isn’t true for bicyclists. In New York City, 11 of the cyclists killed in 2019 were on streets without bike lanes, the New York Times reports. Two of these bikers were in bike lanes and were hit at intersections. One person was riding outside of a provided bike lane. The city estimates that 89% of cyclist fatalities occur on streets without bike lanes.

Driver inattention is top of mind for U.S. road safety experts who study cyclist deaths. “A unifying theme in many of these crashes is that the motorist often fails to see the bicyclist, while the bicyclist expects the driver to give way and is unable to stop in time to avoid a crash,” according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. In a small Canadian study last year, 11 of 19 drivers in real-world situations failed to look at key areas for cyclists before making a turn. The research, done at a busy…

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Robert Roy Britt
Elemental

Editor of Aha! and Wise & Well on Medium + the Writer's Guide at writersguide.substack.com. Author of Make Sleep Your Superpower: amazon.com/dp/B0BJBYFQCB