Credit: NHTSA

After hitting an all-time low in 2010, bicycle deaths have risen 12 percent nationwide, the largest increase in two decades and outpacing the overall rise all traffic fatalities, according to a new report by the Governors Highway Safety Association. But contrary to four decades ago, adults rather than children are more likely to die in a bicyclist-vehicle crash today.

According to the report, which received funding from State Farm Insurance, in 1975 younger bicyclists accounted for almost 80 percent of fatalities, but in 2015 that number dropped to 11 percent. In 2015, 720 adults were killed bicycling, up from 212 in 1975. After steadily rising over the past four decades, today the average age of a bicyclist killed in traffic is now 45.

While bicycle deaths are often undercounted, the report contributes part of the decline in bike deaths among children and teen to a massive drop in biking and walking trips taken to and from school. It linked the tripling of adult bicyclists killed to low car ownership rates and rising bike ridership among millennials.

According to a press release accompanying the report, “A unifying theme in many of these crashes is that the motorist often fails to see the bicyclist, while the bicyclist expects the driver to give way and is unable to stop in time to avoid a crash. This illustrates the need for all people to pay attention to their surroundings whenever they take to the road.”

At 2 percent, bicyclists represent the smallest percent of injuries or deaths from traffic accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Data analyzed in the report found though 80 percent of bike trips are taken during the day, crashes were fairly evenly distributed between day and night. With 41 percent of accidents happening between 6 pm and midnight.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, failure to yield right of way accounts for the highest percentage of bicyclist deaths at 25 percent, and an unseen bicyclist visible wearing dark clothes or lacking lighting represent 11 percent of total bike deaths.

This reports also lists alcohol and distracted driving as common factors in crashes. Of the 818 bicyclists killed in 2015, alcohol played a role in 37 percent of those fatal accidents, according to the report. With 22 percent of fatally injured cyclists or 12 percent of the motorists in these crashes had blood alcohol content (BAC) level of .08 or higher. And distracted drivers in the U.S. killed 79 bicyclists in 2015, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Interestly, when it came to location of crash in the roadway, only 28 percent of all bicyclist fatalities occur at intersections.

Other notable statistics from the report:

  •  Since 2011 an average of 55 additional bicyclists have died annually on U.S. roads
  • Separated bike lanes are up to 89 percent safer than streets with parked cars and no cycling facilities
  • 54 percent of the bicyclists killed in 2015 were not wearing a helmet
  • With more men than women riding, male bicyclists are almost six times more likely to be killed than female cyclists — unchanged since 1975

28 Replies to “Bicyclist Deaths are on the Rise”

  1. This data needs to be presented with a denominator in a bumch of spots for us to make sense of it.

    As a rate are cycling deaths more or less common?

    Are men 6 times more likely to ride and therefore 6 times more likely to die in a crash or 3 times more likely to ride and therefore terrible at safe cycling when compared to women?

    Also: The kids stat is sad in a way that could lead to some really tricky sentences.

    1. The post needs a link to the source material:

      And missing from the GHSA report is data about the overall increase in the number of people riding bikes on the roads, so it’s hard to tell if a typical bike rider is facing a higher chance of death on a bike trip than before. I know that there has been a huge increase in adult bike riders since 1975. The report seems to imply that as long as I’m not drunk and I ride during the day, the odds of living a long life are in my favor.

  2. “54 percent of the bicyclists killed in 2015 were not wearing a helmet”

    How many of them would have been prevented or lessened if they had been wearing a helmet? And conversely, how many of the other 46 percent would have been killed if they hadn’t been wearing a helmet? Helmets help in only certain kinds of situations, but that doesn’t mean that was the situation that happened in this case.

    1. Denominators would help here too. If 46% of cyclists wear a helmet, and 46% of fatalities were wearing helmets, that implies helmets don’t prevent fatalities.

      On the other hand, if 80% of cyclists wear helmets, but only 46% of fatalities wore helmets, then there is a correlation between not wearibg helmets and fatal collisions.

      1. We don’t need statistics to know that “helmets don’t prevent fatalities.” Helmets protect the skull. I don’t need a “study” to know that bicyclists can die from injuries to other than the head.

        Seat belts don’t prevent all automobile fatalities, either. Duh.

  3. “A unifying theme in many of these crashes is that the motorist often fails to see the bicyclist, while the bicyclist expects the driver to give way and is unable to stop in time to avoid a crash. This illustrates the need for all people to pay attention to their surroundings whenever they take to the road.”

    What a load of victim blaming tripe. Honestly don’t know what else I expected from the National 5-Ton Steel Cage Association.

  4. The data look consistent with general bicycle use to me. There seems to me more helicopter parenting which lowers youth bicycle use, and more bicycling popularity which increases adult bucycle use. The denominator is indeed important, as noted by Keith above.

  5. I have to wonder if this is correlated to the (seemingly) increasing number of people living on the street, people who may be more likely to ride bikes to get around — and maybe not as safely as the normal cyclist.

    1. Josh, I’d really like to see your sources and stats. If you can put all your possessions on a normal bike and also sleep under it, I think you’d be in the minority. But given IT wages and ages in Seattle right now, inevitable 2008 Part II could result in exactly this happening. Except with the tarp roped over much more expensive “wheels”.

      And Pat, from the wheel of a bus, I’ve seen years of evidence that drivers of everything wheeled could use a lot more intensive training in the actual operation of their machine. And some drill in road manners.

      But also much evidence that every city needs complete redesign of its streets and roads for new mix of modes. I don’t think automobile speed should be more than 20 miles an hour for joint use with bikes. Anybody with a problem with that, plan presumes transit on fully reserved lanes.

      Nothing new about adjusting for anything this new.

      Mark Dublin

      1. The original GHSA report does note that traffic deaths in NYC have dropped dramatically as the city has redesigned its street to better accommodate bikes and pedestrians. “Lessons learned/best practices” that should be applied elsewhere.

      2. I have no sources nor stats. Just seems like there’s more people living on the streets these days than in the past and I see them do stuff that isn’t very safe. Just throwing it out there that the bicycle deaths may be related to this. And, ultimately, the cause seems to be drugs and mental health problems. But that’s just my observation, maybe you see it differently. What do you see?

      3. Josh, Let’s please focus on hard data instead of vague anecdotes. I fail to see how “I see homeless people do unsafe stuff” adds any value to this conversation.

  6. How is bike sharing going to impact the death rate? When I’m riding my own personal bike part of the caution I use while riding is because I don’t want to damage my bike, in addition to my desire to arrive at the destination safe and alive. Will bike riders exercise less caution and put themselves in greater danger knowing that they don’t own the bike?

    The percentage of deaths where the bike rider is drunk is also astonishing. Maybe riding a bike home from the bar isn’t such a good idea after all.

    1. For me at least, the desire to not become a red smear in the road is several thousand times stronger than my desire not to damage my bike. I would imagine it’s the same for most people. Whether or not you own the bike is irrelevant.

  7. There is a general lack of public safety education in general. When I was a lad and there was no cable TV, every station had to run many public service announcements which were required in exchange for frequency rights. With Reagan appointees to the FCC and the growth of cable TV channels, that requirement faded.

    Nowadays, as cable TV is replaced by the web, public safety education is almost nonexistent! The awful ways I see how people both drive and use bicycles seems like it is getting worse because there are no gentle reminders to behave better. Even texting while driving is illegal but I see it all the time; that bad behavior may actually be the primary cause of the increased number of bicycle deaths! (Is texting while bicycling illegal?)

    Given how many info sources rely on ad revenue and keywords, we might get better results per dollar to introduce ways to reintroduce public safety education through paid content. A government can obsess about safe design and spend millions adding protected bicycle lanes while increasing auto congestion and frustration through capacity reductions, but not investing in more public safety education won’t ultimately change behaviors to lower occasional accidents because negligent behavior is the sole or primary cause of many of them.

    1. Trust in authorities has also declined, which both makes it harder to get support for propagating public service messages and makes people less inclined to respond to them. That’s not just because of Reagan but because of Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra, the Iraq war, and the rise of right-wing media claiming only their facts are true and everything else is brainwashing and social enginering.

      1. Mike, I think reason most people “shine on” public service messages is that as a population when life and death need arises, we start serving swiftly and capably without Order One. Injured bike rider. Boston Marathon bombing. End of the Twin Towers.

        Maybe it’s just places I go and people I know, but I’ve never seen anybody get hurt and nobody help. Fast, competent, and unexhorted.

        But I think current condition of both BART and DC Metro show this country’s worst danger. Over decades, many things here have worked so well that nobody thinks there’s anything wrong with deferring maintenance.

        Definitely not saying it’s wrong to call attention to wrong things. Just the opposite. Fact you just wrote this message in on your own time, in addition to all your other transit advocacy, shows you’re not tuning out anything. Just focusing your attention on messages you need to take action.


    2. And part of the education process has to be a bicycle component to Drivers’ Education and driver license exams. The more people learn to think beyond the vantage point of being behind a windshield, the better.

  8. Blood-chilling realization, Al: Push for automatic cars is conspiracy between the car and video game industries to create a permanent “Base” of customers who hate transit only slightly more than they hate driving. But neither as much as thinking.

    Tempted to suggest they’re still looking for illicit romance where their parents can’t see them. Actually, this is exactly what moralizers accused cars of in 1910. Since Leonardo da Vinci couldn’t get crowd-funding, nobody’s parents could be “Helicopter”. Probably “Hand-holding” or something to do with chickens’ mommies. Also something about your mother’s apron-strings for a safety line.

    Since all these activities, including killing people with jet cars and rocket launchers, are now completely virtual, only remaining danger is car crashes. Which, while driver-elimination won’t save as many lives as proponents say (do they ever?) they’ll get death toll low enough to please both share-holders and the powerful insurance lobby, and also justify cuts in the highway patrol.

    But in addition, traveling only in an automatic car will save thousands of lives from a deadly ancient hazard brought back by changed environmental conditions. In non-driverless cars, much suicide-by-texting. But only at controls of a car, train, or giant tanker.

    MLK LINK has on record at least one plugged-in pedestrian music appreciator walk texting into the side of a moving train. But while ornithologists don’t like to talk about it, we could be creating conditions for the return of prehistoric vultures with a twenty-foot wingspan whose favorite snack was an intensely distracted animal.

    Conference was also going to cover pterodactyls, but only trace of scheduled presenter was some big feathers and an iPad crunched to bird gravel. Between the rails on MLK. So wouldn’t sweat public safety training. From the time we were all parameceums, Nature has always efficiently taken care of public safety by limiting reproduction to the ones who live.


  9. Worth noting (for those skimming the post) that these statistics are nation-wide, so anything Seattle does or does not do to improve bike infrastructure is going to have negligible effect.

  10. I don’t think the rising rate of adult crashes and the falling number of kids riding to school are unrelated. Both because of adult cyclists that didn’t ride as kids, and because of adult drivers that didn’t ride as kids.

    As someone that did ride as a kid, I can’t imagine not being able to do it. My life woulda been a lot smaller.

  11. I can only comment on my experience as a motorist. First off, Seattle’s Cycle tracks are very poorly designed. They are at road level so they “blend in” with the road (drivers often think of the sidewalk as the “curb”, often times they have parking strips painted nex to the bike lane confusing things even more, and the whole mess is generally poorly marked out. On top of this, you have those confusing Christmas trees lights on 2nd Ave. I have also seen a lot of bicyclists are riding down the street with earbuds in both ears totally oblivious to anything going on around them while they listen to whatever they call music. I can think of several things to remedy this, first off, the cycle tracks must go, replaced with separate bike lanes for each direction of travel, Secondly while Europe uses round signals with ped or bike symbols for those uses, in the US the round signal is better known for automotive. Which means, the round bike signals need to go, and be replaced with square ped signal types for bikes. Third, split phases for bike/ped and auto traffic in heavily traffic areas. The bicyclists are somewhat guilty as well. It should be illegal to wear any kind of headphone or earbud when operating a bike on a public roadway, and at dusk and night bicyclists should be required to equip their bikes with lights and wear reflective clothing to be better seen by all.

    1. Bike lights already are required at night, by the State of Washington. I’m fine with that.

      As for banning biking with headphones, I’ll be okay with that when cars are required to go around with windows open. If people are allowed to drive deadly motor vehicles with sound dampened, why be stricter on cyclists? Why blame the victim?

  12. Would be helpful to know more than just helmet use among the fatalities. e.g. mirror and head and rear lights.

  13. My general sense is that most of the lights that are used on bicycles are poorly designed. A single lamp fore and aft provides a motorist with little sense that there is a bicycle present. Flashing either lamp, as many cyclists do because it extends battery life and their own visibility with the headlight, makes it more confusing to the driver.

    There are lights that illuminate the cycle from below so you can, as a driver (or an approaching cyclist) see the full outline of the cycle. These aren’t used much but in my experience when I see them they make the bicycle more visible and more obviously a bicycle. I’d love to see how they would impact safety if used in significant numbers.

    The goal is not to be cool. It is to get home alive.

    1. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of those lights before – do you have a link? They sound very interesting, and I might want to buy one for myself!

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