Bike Fatalities Are On The Rise

Kaiser Health News

Phillip Reese | 1/30/2020, 11:29 a.m.

Alongside the surging popularity of bike shares and fitness cycling in California comes a

sobering statistic: From 2016 through 2018, more cyclists died in traffic accidents across the

state than during any three-year period in the past 25 years.

Traffic accidents killed 455 cyclists in California from 2016 through 2018, according to new

data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The figures translate to

about 3.9 bike accident fatalities per million people, the highest rate over any three-year

period since the mid-1990s, before many cities built extensive bike networks.

Nationwide, the fatal accident rate was lower, but also on the rise. From 2016 through 2018,

2,516 cyclists died in traffic accidents, a rate of about 2.6 per million people. That was the

highest three-year death rate since the mid-2000s.

Experts point to a convergence of factors for the upsurge: a sustained rise in how much

Americans are driving , the prevalence of distracted driving and a pronounced consumer

shift toward big trucks and sport utility vehicles . Some analysts also said there are simply

more bikes on the road.

“There’s definitely been an increase in popularity of cycling,” said Julia Griswold, a

researcher at the University of California-Berkeley’s Safe Transportation Research and

Education Center. “And then also since the economy has recovered from the 2008 crash,

there’s been an increase in driving.”

With the unemployment rate near historic lows, more people are commuting to work,

intensifying the mix of cars and bikes on city roadways. Bike-share programs are now

common in many cities. At the same time, the advent of car ride-hailing services has led to

more drivers cruising around waiting for their next pickup.

“The more people are driving, the higher the probability of an incident,” said Jennifer

Boldry, director of research at PeopleForBikes, a national nonprofit that advocates for

greater bike access and safety.

Exacerbating the risks: Smartphones are ubiquitous in much of America, and thousands of

people die each year in accidents caused by distracted driving. Boldry cited a recent study by

the National Transportation Safety Board showing that “midblock” collisions — wrecks in

areas between intersections, where speeds are higher — tend to cause greater injury to

cyclists. Often, drivers involved in those sorts of wrecks say they didn’t see the cyclist they


“My conclusion from that is: It’s really tough to see someone if you’re looking at your

phone,” Boldry said.

In addition, bigger autos like SUVs often have larger blind spots than those of smaller cars,

making it more difficult to see a cyclist. They also sit higher, which can affect the area of

impact. “Think about where an SUV hits you on a bike versus where a very low-riding sedan

might hit you,” Boldry said. “You get hit in the leg, the injury is way less severe than if you’re

hit in the chest.”

As with other types of fatal accidents involving cars, male cyclists in America die in crashes

much more often than women. From 2016 through 2018 in California, almost eight men