Fear mongers be gone! Riding a bike is safe.


Source: BikeFedWisconsin

In the last six weeks four people have been tragically killed while riding bicycles in Wisconsin. The headlines in the newspapers can’t help but trumpet that seemingly alarming statistic, and not surprisingly many of the comments under the online versions of those stories were equally alarmist and typically, patently untrue.  As a certified and insured bicycle safety instructor, a person who has been riding a bicycle every day for the last 16 years and a traffic safety professional studying crash statistics for the last 11 years, I would like to present the actual facts about the risks of cycling. Despite the recent tragic deaths, riding a bicycle remains an incredibly safe and inherently healthy activity.

Bicycling already is safe and it keeps getting safer.

Certainly we at the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin are dedicated to improving conditions for people on bicycles, but let’s be clear, it may not always be pleasant to ride a bicycle on the street next to heavy traffic, but if you obey the laws, it issafe.  As people who ride bicycles, we can all try to keep this in mind and share the information presented below, so perhaps at some point in time, we will no longer read comments like the following under stories about someone’s death:

“It’s only by the grace of God that we don’t see scores of bicyclists in
accidents in Madison alone.” –Elections Matter

“I have to chime in here. I have given up biking because of the terrible drivers and my fear of them.” –Runner Girl

“If you’re riding a bicycle, and mixing with high speed traffic, you should be asking yourselves “Why am I here?” or “Is there a better route?” Why risk your lives to see who is right or wrong when there are plenty of Bike Paths? Any legal settlement will never get your legs back?” –Michael R Starich (yeah, a real person!)

“I love biking but in no way will I ride on public roads anymore. The danger level is too great. That is my personal choice.” –ST123

“I am a retired sergeant with the State Patrol … With that said I will say the vast majority of people riding bicycles do not obey the law the same as drivers of motor vehicles. Runners, walkers and people on bikes need to understand that the vast majority of our roads in this state were never designed to handle the differing types of traffic on them today. They were primarily designed for motorized vehicles and as such there simply is no way to make them safe for everyone. You can have all the special programs to raise awareness and such but bad things will still take place. Would taxpayers want to pay for restricted lanes on all streets for bikes, walkers and runners? I seriously doubt it.” –Rick H

“The guy drove his bike suicidally. He got what he wanted.” –EvilLiberal

So let the fear mongers be gone and lets try to drill down to the truth and nothing but the truth, which is that riding a bicycle is safe, and in point of fact, it is safer than driving a car. Believe it or not, those are the facts.  Look at any risk chart, odds of accidental death chart, or crash statistics chart and they will illustrate that riding a bicycle is WAY safer than driving a motor vehicle. Here are just a few sources of statistics:

Lifetime Odds of Accidental Death (Source National Safety Council)

  • Bicyclist 1 in 4,838
  • Car Occupant 1 in 242

Leading Causes of Accidental Death in the US (As compiled from data reported by the National Vital Statistics Report, Vol. 50, No. 15, September 16, 2002)

  • #1 Motor Vehicle
  • #6 Drowning
  • #9 Other Land Transport Accidents (including bicycling, walking, etc.)

Fatalities per Million Exposure Hours (Data compiled by Failure Analysis Associates, Inc.)

  • Motor vehicle travel: .47
  • Bicycle travel: .26

The statisticians can argue about exposure hours, rates per mile, fatalities per trip, and on and on, but in the end, all of those statistics say that riding a bicycle is a very safe thing to do.  Out of the more than 2.5 million people who ride bicycles in Wisconsin every year, on average, we have only 10 fatalities. As I mentioned in a previous post, the numbers of people riding bicycles in Wisconsin has been increasing every year for more than a decade and the number of crashes has been going down, which means the crash rate, or odds of getting hurt or killed is also going down.

To think of this in another way, let’s look at cycling from a pure risk assessment perspective rather than comparing it to driving a car.  Most everything we do has some risk associated with it, from taking a shower to riding a bicycle. In 2009, 630 bicyclists died on US roads (718 in 2008, 1,003 in 1975, see the trend?) while the National Safety Council reports that on average, 12,000 people die walking down stairs every year, with half of those fatal accidents occurring in the home.  Yet the newspapers don’t report those deaths with banner headlines like: “34th Person Killed On Stairs in 2 Months.”  Witnesses say the man was taking two steps at a time, carrying a large package and not holding the railing. And the online newspaper comments should read

“I used to take the stairs all the time, now I stick to the elevator. Those stairs are an accident waiting to happen” –Jimthepublican

“sure take the stairs, heck they were good enough for the Egyptians why accept progress, LIKE ELEVATORS.” -WIforward

Despite the number of fatal accidents, we don’t warn family members about stairs when they get up from the couch to check the laundry in the basement: “Honey, you be careful walking down the stairs.  There are a lot of dangerous stairs out there!”

Risk aversive behavior taken to the extreme to make a point. Photo from DC Rainmaker’s blog.

So why is it that when a tragic, but very rare crash kills a person riding a bicycle, we all start to bemoan the dangers of the road, the scofflaw cyclists and the crazy drivers?  First and foremost our thoughts and comments should be of sympathy for the family and friends of the victim, then after the final details of the crash have been made public we should look for ways to prevent a similar future tragedy.

The point here is that it may sell papers, but fear mongering and casting blame are inappropriate responses to relatively rare tragedies when someone dies riding a bicycle, which is a generally safe activity and inherently healthy thing to do.  On rare occasions an athlete has a heart attack while running, swimming, golfing, playing tennis, etc.  We don’t rant about it and advise people to stop exercising, do we?  In fact, if you really want to look at dangerous activities, most of them happen on the couch or sitting at the dinner table.

Healthy Safe and Fun and on the path to Wellville! This photo from one of the Bike Fed’s bicycle safety education classes.

Obesity in the US has doubled over the last ten years, Type 2 diabetes has increased nine-fold, and preventable heart disease remains the number one killer of Americans. New terms are being coined for this health crisis.  Sedentary Death Syndrome, or “SeDS” and the other health risks related to “obesogenic” illnesses are exacerbated by a lack of physical activity.  Sixty percent of Americans are at risk , and sadly even our children are generally overweight and not getting enough exercise. The cost of healthcare to treat all these preventable illnesses is expected to be more than $3 trillion over the next ten years.

Luckily, the doctor has a cure, and it is as easy as riding a bike and eating an apple a day.  Yup, all we need to do to save $3 trillion dollars is for Americans to ride their bikes and eat healthier. We don’t need any expensive Harvard Medical School studies, and we don’t need any expensive government healthcare programs.  All we need to do is get up off the couch, out of our cars, away from the buffet table and ride a bicycle. And no matter what the headlines and the trolls underneath tell you, remember that riding a bicycle is healthy, safe and fun.