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Bicycling Crashes In Perspective

The loss of 690 lives in bicycle/motor vehicle crashes in 2000, almost two people every day of the year, is an awful toll. The good news is that the number of bicyclist fatalities each year is falling - down from 754 in the previous year and from 859 back in 1990, a drop of 20 percent in ten years. The number of reported injuries involving bicyclists is also falling, from 68,000 in 1993 to 51,000 in 2000. However, we know from research into hospital records that only a fraction of bicycle crashes causing injury are ever recorded by the police, possibly as low as ten percent.

The raw numbers hide all kinds of trends, truths, and lessons, and they beg a wide range of questions. Is bicycling dangerous? Is it more dangerous than other modes of travel? Is bicycling getting safer? Who is getting killed in bicycle crashes, where, when, and why?

Is bicycling dangerous?
Obviously with 690 deaths last year, there are risks associated with riding a bicycle. Bicycle fatalities represent just under two percent of all traffic fatalities, and yet bicycle trips account for less than one percent of all trips in the United States. However, bicycling remains a healthful, inherently safe activity for tens of millions of people every year - recent numbers from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics reveal that more than 40 million adults rode a bicycle within the past 30 days.

The public health community is now recognizing that lack of physical activity, and a decline in bicycling and walking in particular, is a major contributor to the more than 300,000 premature deaths caused by heart attacks and strokes - this number dwarfs the 40,000 annual deaths due to motor vehicle crashes and the relatively small 690 bicyclist deaths.

Is bicycling more dangerous than other modes of travel?
As mentioned above, bicyclists are over-represented in the crash data as they account for almost two percent of fatalities but less than one percent of trips. However, there is no reliable source of exposure data to really answer this question: we don't know how many miles bicyclists travel each year, and we don't know how long it takes them to cover these miles (and thus how long they are exposed to motor vehicle traffic, for example).

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration uses a fatality rate per million population to state that 2.51 cyclists were killed per one million population in 2000 - the same figure for pedestrians would be 17.3 people per million and for motor vehicle fatalities the figure is closer to 127 people per million. By that measure, bicycling looks considerably safer than other modes!

Is bicycling getting safer?

A drop of 20 percent in fatalities since 1990 certainly sounds good - but without knowing how many people are riding, and how far they are riding, there's no way of knowing whether the drop in crashes is because fewer people are bicycling, or people are only riding on trails and not the roads, because they perceive conditions to be much less safe than ten years ago.

In 1994, the US Department of Transportation adopted a policy of doubling the percentage of trips made by bicycling and walking while simultaneously reducing by ten percent the number of bicyclists and pedestrians injured in traffic crashes. The goals are to be pursued together - one cannot or should not be achieved at the expense of the other goal. Experience from many European countries suggests that increasing levels of bicycling can be done without increasing crash rates, and that strength in numbers can yield safety benefits.

Who is getting killed in bicycle crashes?
A detailed breakdown of the age, gender, and location of bicycle crash victims is available from the NHTSA and IIHS fact sheets listed under Crash Facts. Some of the more noteworthy trends or numbers are:
  1. In 1990, the average age of bicyclists killed in traffic crashes was 28 years. By 2000, this had risen dramatically to 35 years of age. Looking even further back, in 1975, 32 percent of bicycle deaths involved people aged 16 or older. In 2000, that figure is 71 percent. So, the percentage of victims that are adults is climbing steadily perhaps signifying that more adults are riding, or that fewer children are riding.

  2. Approximately forty percent of bicycle fatalities occur in just four states: California, Florida, New York and Texas. While these are among the most populous states, the figure is still remarkably high the same states account for 28 percent of all traffic fatalities.
For more information on countermeasures for particular bicycle crash types, use the bicycle crash matrix at in the bicycling crashes section.