Iowa bicyclist fatalities trend down after 2016 spike

Four deaths involve children younger than 14

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While bicyclist fatalities have dropped to more average numbers following 2016’s spike, one alarming new trend exists this year — four of the five deaths in the state have involved children.

The Iowa Bicycle Coalition, which tracks bicyclist fatalities on roads, trails and other locations, has counted five bicyclist fatalities so far this year, compared to almost twice that number in 2016.

“It is more toward the average this year, but the year is nowhere near over,” said Mark Wyatt, executive director with the Iowa Bicycle Coalition. “The most striking change this year is, four of those five (fatal crashes) involved motor vehicles and all four of the motor vehicle crashes involved kids under 14 years old.”

The Iowa Department of Transportation, which tracks fatalities on public roadways, reports four bike deaths so far in 2017, compared to seven at this time last year.

According to DOT data, last year reached eight total bike deaths, the highest since 2010. The Iowa Bicycle Coalition puts last year’s total at 11 deaths.

Milly Ortiz, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator with the Iowa DOT, said it’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly played a role in Iowa’s 2016 increase in bike fatalities.

“We don’t know if it’s because of more distracted driving ... motorists driving drunk or just not paying attention,” Ortiz said. “There are a lot of factors that go into that.”

Dennis Kleen, with the Iowa DOT’s Office of Driver Services, said annual bike fatalities typically remain in the single-digits, which also makes it tricky to find a singular cause for an increase.

Last year also saw a nearly 27 percent increase in highway fatalities and motorcycle deaths reached 60 for the first time since 2010.

“Everything across the board was just up,” Kleen said.

As with bicyclist fatalities, traffic deaths have been trending lower this year.

Meanwhile, a report released last month by the Governors Highway Safety Association found that bicyclist fatalities nationwide increased by 12.2 percent in 2015.

And the number has been climbing — by an average of 55 additional deaths — each year since 2011, according to the report.

The age of those individuals also has been shifting. From 1975 to 2015, the number of fatalities among those age 20 or younger dropped from 786 to 91. Meanwhile the number of deaths for those older than 20 years old increased from 212 to 720, the report states.

For Iowa, recent changes to the state’s distracted-driving law that allow police to pull over and fine motorists who are texting — the law went into effect July 1 — should help reduce incidents, said Patrick Hoye, a former Iowa State Patrol chief who leads the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau.

“We still believe distracted driving is one of the No. 1 causes of bicycle crashes,” he said. “Basically, if we can get people off their phones while they’re driving, then their attention is back on the road where it’s supposed to be.”

Another item discussed during this year’s legislative session was the possibility of updating the state’s passing laws. The proposal would require motorists to move completely into the left lane when passing bicyclists, rather than the current requirement of providing “safe and reasonable” space when passing.

The item did not pass the statehouse, but Hoye said he expects to see it again in the coming session.

Iowa Bicycle Coalition’s Wyatt said that bill is significant, as five of the 11 bicyclist deaths recorded last year by the group took place when a motorist tried to pass a bike.

While updating state laws to be more bike-friendly is one approach to safety, the DOT’s Ortiz said educating motorists and bicyclists is another way to reduce crashes.

“We can change speed limits, we can change a lot of things, but if people don’t follow it, that behavior part doesn’t change, then we still have crashes happening,” Ortiz said.

Wyatt said his organization has been working to better provide motor vehicle and bicycle safety lessons at an earlier age.

“I think there is an entire awareness issue that we need to deal with, “ he said. “Starting with those new drivers, hopefully we can create a generation of drivers who know how to safely operate around bikes.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3175; mitchell.schmidt@thegazette.com

Safety Tips

Here is a list of bicycle safety tips for motorists and bicyclists from the Iowa Department of Transportation:

For motorists

— Don’t honk your horn at bicyclists.

— Use extra caution when passing bicycles.

— Bicycles might swerve to avoid road hazards.

— Be careful when opening your vehicle door.

— When in doubt, yield to bicycles.

For bicyclists

— Always wear a helmet.

— Ride on the right.

— Never ride against traffic.

— Obey traffic signs and signals.

— Make eye contact with motorists.

— At night, use a headlight, taillight and reflectors.

John McGlothlen / The Gazette

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