As more people are taking to two wheels for commuting and overall fitness, cycling accidents and injuries are on the rise. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that in 2015 there were 818 cyclists killed in motor vehicle traffic crashes in the United States, an increase from 729 in 2014. In addition, there were more than 45,000 people injured in bicycle accidents in 2015. More than 80 percent of those killed or injured were male. While safety gear for cyclists is improving thanks to better technology, it is not a fail-safe for sensible cycling.
More bikes, more cars, more distractions
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of people who commuted to work via bicycle in 2014 had increased 60 percent over the past decade nationwide. Local governments across the country have made efforts to improve commuting options — such as bike-sharing programs and infrastructure aimed at making bike commuting easier, including increased cycling paths and bike lanes — but in many cases, cyclists are still sharing the road with cars, which are increasing in volume as well. In 2015, there were an estimated 263 million cars on the road in the U.S.
Add more bikes, plus more cars, and the fact that distracted driving has reached dangerous levels, and we have a recipe for disaster. NHTSA estimates that 660,000 drivers use electronic devices while driving on any given day.
Data from Craig Hospital shows a 290 percent increase in bicycling-related injuries from 2011 to 2016. The majority of these patients have sustained traumatic brain injuries, and according to the hospital's data, these brain injuries are increasing in the level of severity. For example, in 2016, 67 percent of patients who were admitted with cycling-related brain injuries measured at level five or lower (more severe) on the Rancho Los Amigos scale, which measures awareness, cognition, behavior and interaction, compared to 40 percent in 2011.
“The injuries we see from bicycle-auto accidents are becoming more and more severe, likely due to the accidents happening much more quickly. When someone is driving distracted, they don’t see a cyclist until it’s too late to try to avoid them, so the impact is much greater,” said Alan Weintraub, M.D., physician and brain injury program medical director at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colorado.
While improvements in safety gear — better helmet technology, sensors for cyclists that can detect oncoming vehicles and more — can certainly help, when a car and a cyclist collide, the cyclist is always at a disadvantage.
“Obviously, patients we see who are wearing a helmet when they are injured typically have a better prognosis than those who are not, but my fear is that as safety equipment improves and becomes more ubiquitous, people can have a false sense of security and take more risks. Helmets or other safety devices should never be a replacement for awareness, caution and following the rules of the road,” said Weintraub.
Making it safer to share the road
Both cyclists and drivers can take steps to create a safer environment for everyone using the road. NHTSA has provided these guidelines:
- All bicyclists should wear properly fitted bicycle helmets every time they ride. A helmet is the single most effective way to prevent head injury resulting from a bicycle crash.
- Bicyclists are considered vehicle operators; they are required to obey the same rules of the road as other vehicle operators, including obeying traffic signs, signals and lane markings. When cycling in the street, cyclists must ride in the same direction as traffic.
- Wear bright clothing and use reflective gear; and at night, use a front light and a red reflector or flashing rear light.
- Plan your route and consider which routes have the most accessibility for bikes.
- Assume drivers don’t see you.
- Just like drivers, cyclists should avoid distractions like talking on a phone, texting or listening to music that could make it difficult to hear cars.
- Yield to cyclists as you would other cars, and don’t underestimate a cyclist’s speed.
- Check for cyclists when backing up, at stop signs, and when opening your door when parked.
- When turning right from a lane that can go straight or turn, check to your right for cyclists going straight.
- Follow the rules of the road.
- Give cyclists room and do not pass too closely.