Just How Dangerous Is Cycling?

Background Reading


A recent thread on the ChainLink forum titled, “Yet Another Cyclist Was Killed Last Night” caught my eye. In fact it was this reply that raised my eyebrows:

Reply by h’ 2 hours ago

Not to minimize this tragedy, Hilario, but cyclist deaths have not really increased much over the last few years even though the number of people out there on bikes has increased exponentially.

It’s hard to know exactly how many cyclist deaths there are as reporting within the emergency response and health care system is still pretty haphazard, and whether the media picks up a cyclist death story is somewhat random.  But a typical year has seen about 4-6 known cyclist deaths within Chicago city limits since I’ve been paying close attention (6 years or so) and this year is not much different, so far.

Hilario Vaquero said:

I’m sad to hear this news. Makes me really think twice about commuting in Chicago and the burbs. Sadly, I just started a month ago.


Click to Enlarge

So how accurate an assessment is this? It turns out that bicycles (at least from the data pictured at the right) are more dangerous to ride than large trucks. And given the fact that several of the most recent deaths of cyclists this year have been from collisions with large trucks, this is troubling.

Whenever the ChainLink comes to grips with a death in the cycling community at least two emphases come to light:

  1. Everyone wants to agitate for some kind of legislation to make it more troublesome for drivers when a cyclist fatality is involved.
  2. Everyone wants to minimize the fear that riders (especially newbies) might have of attempting to commute by bicycle within the city limits.

These two efforts are a bit at odds with one another. Every time you raise awareness you bring to light the fact that someone has died. And it is not only drivers who might be alerted to the problem but would be cyclists as well. If as has happened you have several deaths occur in a very short span of time it sends the signal that cycling is dangerous.

Now couple that with the stress that riding in rush hour traffic can bring and suddenly folks who are relative newbies are asking if others begin to feel the rising anger at having to deal with rude and inattentive drivers. And then you find that a thread on ChainLink documents the attempts by cyclists to document their frustrations by writing “Consider This A Missed Connection” entries and you have the recipe for fear and loathing among cyclists which cannot be explained away.

Eventually the situation and the language used to discuss this stress/anxiety/aggression cycle that riders move through demonstrates a profound dislike of motorists and motor vehicles that is palpable. And no amount of “Share the Road” blathering will take away the feeling. In fact the very first time that a rider is crushed to death by a truck delivering a “right hook” while in a protected bike lane the supposed sense of safety that the soothing green was to provide evaporates and you are back to fear and loathing.

You really have to consider the advantage that Europeans have in what are essentially segregated bike lanes. The closest we have is the Chicago Lakefront Trail. Those kinds of infrastructure elements make it possible for even young children to ride safely. What we have here in Chicago and coming soon to s suburb near you are often lanes that are “works in progress” and sometimes downright wrongly installed.

Nothing gives me the “willy’s” more assuredly than having a car lane directed into what use to be the bike lane as they both approach the intersection. In Hyde Park right now there is one at 55th and Ellis that is simply horrendous. Cars coming from the left and moving at speed can overtake a cyclist quite easily and result in an accident.

We need better infrastructure than what the Europeans freely admit is our DOS 4.0 to their Windows 8.

Think About This

Cyclists are always complaining that motor vehicles get the “pride of place” at the infrastructure table. And that is indeed the case. So you would assume that as step children things would be going swimmingly for those who are at the top of the pecking order. But when you read what is going on in 2012 you do not get a warm fuzzy feeling. In fact quite the opposite!

Traffic deaths are on the rise. Back in August this is what the Tribune had to say about the problem:

Illinois Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider says she has set a goal to eliminate traffic deaths in the state, but that ambitious target is slamming into a harsh reality in 2012.

Traffic fatalities increased 17 percent statewide from January through July, compared with the same period in 2011, Schneider told your Getting Around reporter Friday, citing 559 deaths during the first seven months of this year, up from 478 fatalities during the same period a year ago.

Bradley Wiggins – Tour de France Winner 2012

Now if this is the result of getting preferential treatment as a transportation class, where all the wisdom and skill is heaped on improvement that segment over the rest of us, then we are truly to be worried. Given the amount of money and attention lavished on automobiles that segment should be the safest of all. And when you factor in all of the protective devices from airbags, shoulder harnesses, side airbags and collapsing steel cages you would figure that automobile drivers should be in the very lowest category where fatalities are concerned, but the number is actually sharply up!

Then finally you have to consider the plight of a really well known and capable cyclist like Bradley Wiggins. And yes the cycling safety campaigners are struggling to overcome the narrative that they have created for themselves.

Any newbie who considers even for a moment what Wiggins injuries represents has to be aware that cycling is anything but safe, if the best cyclist in the world can succumb to injury.