Bicycles have been a favored mode of transportation for centuries. In the early days of the bicycle’s development, it was an inexpensive and efficient way to travel, with no automobiles to provide a powered alternative. Today, they’re a top choice for their energy efficiency, utility as an exercise, and convenience in dense traffic areas.
But despite the popularity of the bicycle and increasing safety standards for both bicycles and the people who ride them, bicycle crash rates remain high. In 2018 alone, there were 857 bicyclists killed in traffic crashes in the United States. Thousands of bicyclists are injured in accidents every year, and tens of thousands of people experience crashes and collisions that go unreported.
So why are bicycle crash rates so high?
Factors for Accidents
First, it’s important to recognize that the risk of being involved in a bicycle accident isn’t stagnant, nor is it the same in all areas. There are several factors that can increase your risk of being in a bicycle accident, including:
- Timing. Most bicycle accidents happen between 6 pm and 9 pm. This is partially because rush hour leads to an increase in vehicular traffic. This is also when the sun typically sets, resulting in lower visibility for motorists and bicyclists alike.
- Traffic. The amount of traffic on the road also plays a factor. In rural areas and on bicycle-designated trails, there’s practically no risk of an accident. But on roads with congested traffic and those with high speed limits, accidents are much more common.
- Infrastructure. Some cities make it a point to provide designated spaces for bicyclists to ride safely – but this isn’t always a given. Sometimes, open roadways and confusing intersections can drastically increase the risks faced by bicyclists.
- Conditions. Conditions are also a factor. Darkness and inclement weather conditions increase the risk of an accident significantly. Additionally, certain areas (like construction zones) may have more obstacles or hazards than others.
Even when controlling for these factors, the accident rate is high. So what are the major problems contributing to this excessive crash rate?
In some areas of the country and around the world, bicyclists have designated paths where they can ride safely. Sometimes, these trails are so far from the mainstream roads that it’s practically impossible for a motor vehicle to hit them. Other times, they’re physically protected by some kind of barrier, such as a median or a row of parked cars. In these setups, motor vehicle accidents are exceedingly rare, and most bicycle crashes are purely the fault of the rider.
But on the road, disputes between bicyclists and motorists can easily arise. Bicyclists may take up more than their fair share of space, or drivers may be annoyed that they can’t conveniently pass a slow bicycle; if either party gets aggressive or begins to neglect safety, an accident can easily occur.
Bicyclist Neglect of the Law
Many bicyclists make it a point to follow the law exactly, but others may be ignorant of bicycle laws or may deliberately ignore them. In some locations, bicycles can function as pedestrians or as vehicles, depending on where they’re ridden; for example, they must comply with all motor vehicle laws when on the road, but may also be ridden on the sidewalk.
Some bicyclists attempt to get the “best of both worlds” by riding on the road, but selectively ignoring traffic laws, such as running through red lights. Such deviations from legal order can result in a higher rate of accidents.
The Visibility Problem
Of course, visibility is also a problem. Bicycles are much smaller than motor vehicle counterparts, and most drivers are used to looking only for other full-sized vehicles on the road. Bicycles also don’t make much noise, making them harder to detect in blind spots. The problem is made worse by low-visibility conditions, such as a dark atmosphere or lingering fog.
Fortunately, this problem can be overcome with the installation of taillights and the wearing of bright clothing, among other changes.
Bicycles tend to be more fragile and crash-prone than motor vehicles in several respects. With two wheels instead of four, they have less inherent stability. There are no anti-lock brakes or advanced driver assistance systems. And safety features like airbags and seatbelts are totally lacking. All it takes is one sideswipe or one obstruction on the road to send a bike swerving out of control.
Riding a bike isn’t inherently dangerous, but it’s a riskier activity than, say, walking or driving a car in most circumstances. When riding a bicycle, always take extra precautions to protect yourself, such as wearing bright clothing, installing lights on your bike, following the law, and of course, wearing a helmet and other protective gear.