Why bicyclist deaths are at the highest levels in 30 years

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Automobile fatalities in the U.S. did a steep nosedive during the Great Recession and the years following it, rose between 2014 and 2016 but have been falling since. Bicycle fatalities, on the other hand, have mostly risen since the mortgage crisis of a decade ago, and are now at their highest number since 1990, at 857 deaths in 2018, the most recent year for which data is available. That’s despite the more widespread use of helmets and improvements in bicycling infrastructure.

“Generally speaking, a U-shaped curve on a graph that tracks fatalities over time is a sign of an emerging public-health issue that warrants serious concern,” writes Christopher Keyes, editor of Outside, in explaining why the magazine is committed to tracking down every cycling death that occurs in 2020 as part of its #2020cyclingdeaths project. Keyes adds the publication has opted to ditch traditional journalistic objectivity in favor of a focus on finding solutions.

What follows is a sobering multimedia piece, along with a package of stories, that lay out the problem in graphs, charts and graphics. Tracking news databases and local-news archives, Outside says 149 people have been killed on their bicycles by motorists so far in 2020. That’s despite the huge drops in vehicle traffic, when “more people than ever” are riding bikes to exercise or avoid crowded busses or subway trains during the coronavirus pandemic.

The piece also delves into the various reasons behind the rising death toll. Citing data from sources including the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Outside says American are driving at faster speeds and logging more miles than ever before. Not surprisingly, we’re also more distracted by our phones (and, probably, our in-car infotainment screens). The increasing size of all of our SUVs and pickup trucks, which are more likely to cause death in a collision with a pedestrian or cyclist, also come under the microscope.

The 30-year high in bicyclist deaths has led the National Transportation Safety Board to recommend that all 50 states make it mandatory that bicyclists wear helmets. Currently, no states have such laws. The agency also cited efforts to separate bicycle and vehicle traffic as a way to increase safety, and it implored NHTSA to evaluate pedestrian crash-avoidance technologies as part of its planned update to its five-star crash ratings program.

Outside acknowledges that more people are riding bikes today than in the late ‘80s, but it says the roughly decade-long uptick in cyclist deaths outpaces the growth in bicycle ridership. What’s more, the trend isn’t repeated in most European cities, where bicycling tends to be much more commonplace than it is here and bicycling infrastructure is often a major area of focus, investment and innovation.

Find the multimedia package here and let us know what you think about the issue in the comments below.

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Saurabh Shukla

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