Bicyclist Deaths, Explained

Driver error, rear-end collisions most responsible for fatalities

A ghost bike in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Ghost bikes, painted white and placed at scenes of cycling accidents, serve as memorials for cyclists hit or killed on the street. (Winfried Mosler/Flickr)

Why and how do cyclists die on the road? What's the fallout? Who's to blame, and how bad are the consequences? The League of American Bicyclists collected information on cycling fatalities from February 2011 to February 2013, and has released the most detailed analysis of these tragedies currently available as part of its Every Bicyclist Counts initiative.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration collects the largest dataset on the yearly number of cycling fatalities, but the League of American Bicyclists took it a step further, adding details from newspaper reports to understand the circumstances around each accident. Its findings indicate that the road is often a dangerous place for cyclists—especially in California, Florida, and New York, which have the highest share of national biking fatalities.

One of the biggest takeaways is that motorists are often responsible for cyclist fatalities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most cycling deaths happen on high-traffic urban roads, and in this study a majority of reports on the accidents found the driver at fault. Of the 628 fatalities included in the report, only 94 were considered the cyclist's fault. The greatest number of fatalities occurred because of careless driving, hit-and-runs, or driving under the influence.

Also striking is that rear-end collisions were responsible for 40 percent of the fatalities. As Vox writer Joseph Stromberg notes, rear-endings make up a small percentage of total collisions, so this indicates that they are extremely dangerous when they do happen.

And the fallout of fatal crashes? According to the numbers in the report, fewer than half result in any enforcement action. Only 12 percent result in a criminal sentence of any kind—certainly a stark contrast to the 238 accidents involving reckless driving.

The hope is that state and national departments of transportation will take note and make the roads safer for cyclists. "Otherwise," said League of American Bicyclists president Andy Clarke in the report, "we will have to keep reporting a totally unacceptable and unnecessary death toll on our nation's roadways."

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