SAFETY: Bicycle-Vehicle Accident Deaths Show Unexpected Trend

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Motor vehicle deaths are up in the United States. Look deep into the data, and you can see that those being killed more often are not who you might think.

When one hears the term “motor vehicle death,” it is easy to jump to the conclusion that the term refers to “car crashes.” Those are certainly part of the total, but the fact is that in 2015, the most recent period for which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has detailed data, only about one in three of the approximately 35,000 annual motor vehicle deaths were from a person inside a car.


In fact, on a per mile basis, the amount of people killed inside cars is holding pretty steady as we drive more miles as a nation. That is not true for other groups included in motor vehicle death totals, such as motorcyclists and pedestrians, both of which are up on a percent basis even after considering three or four percent increases in miles driven.

The group with the largest increase, 12.2% from just 2014 to 2015, is pedalcyclists, a.k.a. bicycle riders. In 2015, this group made up about 2% of the overall motor vehicle-related deaths. The amount of Americans killed in a bicycle-related motor vehicle accident each year is roughly equal to that of five commercial plane crashes (818 people). One might jump to the conclusion that this means children, but it isn’t children being killed on bikes.


Drilling deeper into the statistical data, BestRide discovered that the people dying in vehicle-bicycle accidents are predominantly adult men, over the age of 20 years old. As the chart above shows, back in the 1970s, most of those killed on bikes in accidents with vehicles were children.  By 1988 the number was equal between children and adults and now it is almost all adult men being killed on bicycles in vehicle-related accidents. Children killed on bikes is trending to zero.


We looked even further and found out that more than a quarter of these men on bikes are dying in accidents that happen in the dark, between 9 pm and 6 am.


When we researched this story, we started at NHTSA’s bicycle safety website. The image above the group posts on its front page about bicycle safety seems to imply it is women and children on side streets in the suburbs who need to be safer. Even our safety groups don’t appear to realize who is at risk.

We then turned our attention to where these adult men were dying on bicycles. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recently summarized the places that these bicycle accidents involving death are happening. We know that 2.5-times more of these accidents are happening in cities as opposed to on rural roads. Most occur on “major roadways.”  Amazingly, three percent of the bicycle deaths occur on highways (interstates and freeways). Why in the world would anyone ride a bicycle on a highway for any reason?  That must be illegal, right?  Wrong.


On the Boston Providence Highway (Rt. 1) in Plainville, Massachusetts a new traffic light was recently installed by the state to help drivers entering and exiting a new casino. The highway leading to and from this section has a speed limit of 55 MPH. Incredibly, the state road project included adding a bicycle lane for the short section of road that was altered when the traffic light was added. Imagine a bike lane that starts on a highway and ends about 100 yards further down the highway and you will have an accurate image.

The surge of adult men being killed on bicycles is just one of the surprises to be found in the unhappy statistics saying that more Americans are being killed in motor vehicle related accidents. When you hear the news media reporting on the topic, listen carefully to see how many imply that the increase is people in cars that are losing their lives.

Image Notes:

1st Chart courtesy of NHTSA

2nd and 3rd Chart Courtesy of IIHS

Bicycle Roll Model Image Courtesy of NHTSA

Image of Interstate 1 Plainville, Mass. bike lane courtesy of Google Earth