Statistics show that the number of fatal bicycle accidents has risen alarmingly in recent years. The nonprofit National Safety Council found that bicycle accident fatalities jumped 44% over a period of just 10 years. There were 873 bicycle deaths in 2011 and 1,260 in 2020.
Why is this happening? There may be no one answer that explains the increase, but several factors appear to be contributing to the increase.
More people are biking
The simplest explanation could be that more people are biking. Because there are more bicycles on the road, more bicyclists are getting injured.
Seattle and many other American cities have been encouraging people to bike for recreation, commuting to work and other excursions. The idea is not only to promote healthy exercise, but to reduce traffic congestion and generally create more pleasant urban spaces. Many cities have created miles of new bike lanes and paths.
However, there’s a problem with the theory that the increase in biking is solely responsible for the increase in bicycle accident fatalities: At the same time the number of fatal bicycle accidents was rising, the number of nonfatal bicycle injuries fell. From 2011 to 2020, it fell by 39%.
Another factor contributing to the problem is bad roadways. Although Congress passed a major infrastructure bill last year, many of America’s roadways remain in bad repair. In many cities, drivers and cyclists alike must routinely dodge potholes and other hazards. Sometimes, they swerve into each other’s lanes, leading to an accident.
Another problem is that, even with all the efforts to promote biking, it’s rare to find a bike lane that is isolated from motor vehicles. Even well-marked bike lanes intersect with roadways, meaning that cyclists must at some point share the road with large vehicle moving at higher speeds.
Perhaps the most important factor in the increase in fatal bike accidents is the same thing that’s behind a rise in serious motor vehicle accidents: driver carelessness.
Over the past few years, researchers noted a worrying trend. After several years in which the statistics appeared to be improving, the rates of motor vehicle accident fatalities suddenly jumped in 2020 tp their highest levels in 15 years. This was especially notable because there were fewer vehicle on the roads that year.
Researchers believed that improved safety features on modern cars would continue to save lives. What they didn’t count on was that more drivers would engage in riskier behavior. With less traffic on the roads, many riders felt free to travel at high speeds, text on their cellphones and engage in other risky behavior behind the wheel, leading to more serious accidents.
Even more worryingly, this trend appears to have continued even after traffic levels increased. Fatality rates in motor vehicle accidents are still at levels higher than they were in 2019.
This situation means the roads are more hazardous for bicyclists too.