More bicycle riders across the United States are dying lately in crashes with cars, and a new national safety report makes clear that this is largely an adult problem that involves alcohol and other grown-up issues.
Eighty-four percent of the cyclists killed in car crashes in 2012 were age 20 or older, the Governors Highway Safety Association said Monday. Back in 1975, when bicycles were mostly for kids, the adult share of biking deaths was just 21 percent.
The urban share of bicycle fatalities has grown as more Americans move to the cities, and as a small but growing portion of workers travel to their jobs by bike – a 62 percent jump in two-wheel commuting between 2000 and 2013, according to U.S. Census data.
“You have a large group of younger people there in Raleigh and in Charlotte who are in high-tech jobs, and in a lot of cases they’re the ones who want to be on bicycles,” said Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, based in Washington, D.C.
“That’s a good thing,” Adkins said. “But when most of us learned how to ride our bikes, we weren’t riding them with a mix of heavy traffic with cars and pedestrians. We were riding them, in a lot of cases, in our residential neighborhoods, on sidewalks.”
Bicycles have accounted for about 2 percent of all traffic deaths nationwide in recent years. The totals are small, and North Carolina’s numbers fluctuate from year to year. In 2012, the most recent year covered in the new report, 27 bike riders in North Carolina and 722 nationwide died in crashes with cars – both numbers up more than 16 percent since 2010.
Alcohol is a big factor in these crashes, more for the cyclists than for the automobile drivers involved.
In North Carolina, where 117 cyclists died in bike-car crashes during the five years that ended in 2012, police concluded that 27 of the cyclists and 14 of the car drivers had been drinking before the crash, according to a searchable database maintained by the UNC Highway Safety Research Center.
Biking while impaired is sometimes a hazard for rural, low-income residents who don’t have driver’s licenses – including four of the nine Robeson County cyclists killed during that five-year period. But it’s part of the city cycling scene, too.
“The urban bicycle commuters go to happy hour, too,” Adkins said. “Impairment is impairment: If you’re too drunk to drive a car, you’re too drunk to ride a bike.”
There are other ways to cut your chances of getting killed on your bike.
More than two-thirds of the cyclists killed each year were not wearing safety helmets. North Carolina and 20 other states require helmets for child cyclists, but no state requires them for adults.
“A helmet is the single most important step to prevent injury or death,” Adkins said. “Obeying traffic laws is another one. Just because you’re on a bike doesn’t mean traffic lights don’t apply to you.”
Bike deaths are down so far this year in North Carolina – just nine so far, compared to 20 by the same date in 2013, according to the state Department of Transportation. Nobody is claiming credit for this brief improvement.
Still, it’s good to know that DOT and local governments are targeting pedestrian as well as bicycle safety in a campaign called Watch For Me NC, which started in the Triangle last year and now has gone statewide.
This is a smart education and enforcement effort that focuses on the problems that kill people. Why are we seeing those “Make room for bikes” posters? Maybe it’s because half of these deaths involve cars trying to pass bicycles.
“A big part of the Watch For Me NC campaign is providing bike lights to police officers, so when they’re on patrol they can actually distribute lights to cyclists that don’t have them,” said Lauren Blackburn, DOT Bicycle and Pedestrian Division director.
Lights on bicycles: It’s the law. And for all you urban commuters pedaling home tonight from work or school or happy hour, it’s also a good idea.