Tuesday, November 04, 2014

The governors' report on cycling safety

The anti-car bike movement hates anything that even suggests that riding a bike can be dangerous, which is why even talking about cyclists wearing helmets makes them uncomfortable.

The recent governors' report (Bicyclist Safety) on the increase in cyclists' deaths nationwide caused a flurry of tortured reasoning and elaborate semantic analysis at Streetsblog and Bike Portland (I made some comments on the Bike Portland thread. I know that talking to True Believers is a waste of time, but sometimes I can't resist.)

The report simply states the obvious: since more people are riding bikes, there are more fatalities among cyclists. But the demographics of those killed has changed:

Fatal bicyclist crash patterns have changed markedly. The percentage involving adults age 20 and older increased from 21 percent in 1975 to 84 percent in 2012. The percentage involving males increased from 82 percent to 88 percent during this period. Adult males comprised 74 percent of all bicyclist deaths in 2012. The percentage of deaths occurring in urban areas climbed from 50 percent in 1975 to 69 percent in 2012.

This is because riding a bike is mostly a guy thing, and they do it mostly in cities.

And this statement in the report pushed the usual buttons:

Lack of helmet use and alcohol impairment have been and continue to be major contributing factors in bicyclist deaths.

Wearing a helmet while riding a bike may be controversial in San Francisco, but it's no secret that most fatalities to cyclists are caused by head injuries:

According to a New York City study (Bicycle Fatalities and Serious Injuries in New York City, 1996-2005) "Nearly all bicyclists who died (97%) were not wearing a helmet," and "Most fatal crashes (74%) involved a head injury."

Other home truths in the governors' report:

However, biking has its own health risks when it occurs on roads shared with motor vehicles. Bikers (and walkers) are frequently classified as “vulnerable road users.” The biking community, however, is not comfortable with the term, preferring instead references such as “green” or “environmentally sound” (Cynecki, 2012). Yet because of differences in mass and the lack of a protective structure, when bicycles collide with motor vehicles, the risk is asymmetric. Bicyclists are susceptible to serious injury; motorists are not (Ragland, 2012). The elevated risk of injury to bicyclists when they encounter motor vehicles makes it important to identify and implement strategies to protect cyclists on the road. There is some evidence that bicycling has increased in recent years. But even with widespread encouragement, many will be deterred from biking if they do not feel safe (Jacobsen et al., 2009).

If, as I believe, cycling is intrinsically unsafe---cyclists will always be "vulnerable road users"---encouraging people to feel safe in taking it up is irresponsible. And it's particularly irresponsible to encourage children to ride bikes on city streets, as City Hall and the Bicycle Coalition are now doing in San Francisco.

The Centers for Disease Control recognizes the special dangers of cycling:

While only 1% of all trips taken in the U.S. are by bicycle, bicyclists face a higher risk of crash-related injury and deaths than occupants of motor vehicles do. In 2010 in the U.S., almost 800 bicyclists were killed and there were an estimated 515,000 emergency department visits due to bicycle-related injuries. Data from 2005 show fatal and non-fatal crash-related injuries to bicyclists resulted in lifetime medical costs and productivity losses of $5 billion.

When discussing cycling and safety, the bike people first try to change the subject to motor vehicles, and then they reach for "infrastructure." If only there were more bike lanes, especially lanes separated from those devilish motor vehicles. The report addresses the issue and is generally supportive, with a caveat about space:

Roads were built to accommodate motor vehicles with little concern for pedestrians and bicyclists. Integrating motor vehicles and bicycles in already-built environments presents challenges. The most protective way to accomplish this is through total physical separation of bicycles and motor vehicles. Research confirms that “cycle paths,” which do this, provide the best safety (Teschke, 2012), but they are rarely feasible.

San Francisco is a good example of where separated bike paths "are rarely feasible," since their creation requires either taking away traffic lanes on busy streets or taking away street parking, which is a valuable and increasingly rare commodity in the city. (Making a separated bike path isn't really "feasible" on Masonic Avenue, either, but, in spite of neighborhood opposition, the city is going to do it anyway because BikeThink and anti-carism dominate traffic policy in City Hall.)

What the governors' report misses is that most cycling accidents don't involve motor vehicles. They are "solo falls," as bike experts point out. Fatalities among cyclists are relatively rare, a small percentage of the total number of cycling accidents, which makes the governors' report something of a red herring.

As that widely-ignored UC study found, however, "cyclist-only" accidents can cause injuries just as serious as what the study calls "cyclist-versus-auto" accidents:

She[Dr. Rochelle Dicker] and her colleagues reviewed hospital and police records for 2,504 bicyclists who had been treated at San Francisco General Hospital. She expected that most of these serious injuries would involve cars; to her surprise, nearly half did not. She suspects that many cyclists with severe injuries were swerving to avoid a pedestrian or got their bike wheels caught in light-rail tracks, for example. Cyclists wounded in crashes that did not involve a car were more than four times as likely to be hurt so badly that they were admitted to the hospital. Yet these injuries often did not result in police reports — a frequent source of injury data — and appeared only in the hospital trauma registry. Dr. Dicker is not a cyclist, but she said, “Lots of my colleagues do not want to ride after seeing these injuries.”

Even allowing for the city's radically flawed method of counting accidents, its annual Collisions Report (page 22) has noticed the relationship between the increase in cycling in San Francisco and injury accidents to cyclists, not to mention the fact that cyclists are responsible for many of their own injury accidents (page 24).

More people riding bikes means more people will get hurt in cycling accidents---and more people will be killed in some of those accidents.

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