New Data Shows Traffic Deaths Down, Cyclist Deaths Rising

Bicyclist deaths in traffic accidents rose in 2012 (the most recent year for which data is available) both in absolute numbers and as a fraction of the nation’s overall road and highway death toll, according to a new report released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

As a table on the first page of the report shows, the total number of traffic-related fatalities fell by more than 20% over the last decade, from 42,884 nationwide in 2003 to 33,561 in 2012. During that same time period, however, the number of bicyclists killed on America’s roads rose from 629 to 726 – an increase of almost 20 percent. As a portion of overall traffic-related deaths that represented an increase from 1.5 percent to 2.2 percent – a small portion of the overall number, but a dramatic increase proportionately speaking.

At a time when people across the country are becoming more aware of the health and environmental benefits of cycling these are worrying numbers. It is good to see that tougher enforcement and better public education have brought the overall traffic death rate down so dramatically (indeed, in the 1970s and 80s it was well over 50,000 per year). At the same time it is alarming to see the rate of bicycle accidents and fatalities rise – especially in an era when one might hope that more bikes on our streets would lead to greater awareness and caution among drivers.

A deeper look at the report yields other interesting insights. It is not surprising to learn that the vast majority of cyclist deaths (69 percent) occur in urban areas, but it is unexpected to see that fewer than one-third of fatal accidents take place at intersections. The cycling community has long focused a significant part of its activism on improving safety and traffic flow at intersections, believing that these are especially dangerous areas for bike riders. It is also interesting to learn that the average age of cyclists involved in fatal accidents was 43 – a number that has also risen steadily over the last decade. For all the – justified – attention that we as parents pay to teaching kids bike safety, this is a reminder that adults riding in traffic are the people at, perhaps, the greatest risk day in-day out.

As a Portland bicycle accident victims lawyer I find these facts – and many others laid out in the NHTSA report (see below for a link) – fascinating. They are proof not only of the importance of safety, but of the importance of understanding that better awareness among drivers does not, by itself, make things safer for cyclists. Drivers must act with the appropriate level of caution, and too often they do not do so. Drivers need to remember that ‘Share the Road’ is not a suggestion, it is the law.

NHTSA: Bicyclists and other cyclists 2012

NHTSA Pedestrian data sheet 2012