Report: Bike fatalities increasing, after decades of decline

Governors Highway Safety Association says trend likely to continue

A cyclist bikes along the Pentacrest in Iowa City on Friday, October 24, 2014. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
A cyclist bikes along the Pentacrest in Iowa City on Friday, October 24, 2014. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

IOWA CITY — A new report shows that after decades of declining bicycle fatalities, cycling deaths from vehicle collisions have increased by 16 percent in recent years.

With more people biking and even more being encouraged to bike for health and environmental reasons, that trend is likely to continue, according to a Governors Highway Safety Association report released Monday. The increase is most noticeable among adult males and in urban areas.

It’s a sign more needs to be done to make room for bicyclists, some say.

“I think it means it’s time we work on a plan and devote more resources to bike and traffic safety,” said Mark Wyatt, executive director of the Iowa Bicycle Coalition.

The “Bicycle Safety” report released by the GHSA shows a 16 percent increase in bicyclists killed in motor vehicle crashes — from 621 in 2010 to 722 in 2012 — compared to a 1 percent increase among all other modes of transportation. The bike data is from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, reported by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Iowa’s fatalities decreased in that time from eight to three, which some say is too small of a sample to detect a trend.

A separate report from the Iowa Bicycle Coalition shows an increase in bike crashes on Iowa roadways from 376 to 426 in that time frame. Meanwhile, figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show a 62 percent increase in bike commuting from 2000 to 2012.

“Probably the biggest reason is that there are more people biking,” said Allan Williams, a social psychologist and highway safety consultant who prepared the GHSA report. “It’s being recommended by more organizations for health and environmental reasons, which is a good thing, but there are risks out there.

“So let’s see how we can accommodate them on the road,” Williams said.

Adopting Complete Streets, a road construction practice that accommodates walking, cycling and public transit along with motor vehicles, was a centerpiece of the report’s recommendations. The report also suggests providing a buffer zone between vehicle and bike traffic; enforcing laws for cyclists and motorists; wearing bike helmets; and improving education.

Cedar Rapids is among urban areas trying to support cycling. The city is already following some of the report’s recommendations, including adopting a Complete Streets policy. Cedar Rapids also recently added green bike lanes and buffered bike lanes on some city streets to enhance safety.

Cedar Rapids has not had a bike fatality since 2010. The city has seen the number of bike crashes hold relatively steady at 21 in 2011, 19 in 2013, and 13 thus far in 2014, according to Brandon Whyte, multimodal transportation planner for the Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Whyte said he agrees with the data in GHSA report, but he said risk has likely gone down as ridership goes up.

“There’s safety in numbers,” he said. “The more riders riding, the actual risk goes down, even though there are more crashes.”

Whyte said when commuters are conditioned to expect cyclists on the road it means both modes of transportation pay better attention, which reduces risk and improves safety.

Milly Ortiz, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator at the Iowa Department of Transportation, said the state is working on Iowa’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan, which is due to be presented to the public as a draft next spring.

The GHSA report found that fatalities among those aged 20 and older swung from 21 percent of the total in 1975 to 84 percent in 2012, including 74 percent that were adult males.

The proportion of fatalities in urban areas shifted from half in 1975 to 69 percent in 2012. Meanwhile, two-thirds of victims were not wearing helmets, and 28 percent had .08 blood alcohol level or higher, which on both counts have remained consistent over the years, according to the report.