Cycling Toward Safety

Cycling safety

While riding a bicycle might seem a healthy alternative to constantly driving about in one’s car, there are still very serious safety concerns to consider. How serious? Well, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2012 there were 726 fatal accidents involving a bicycle in the United States. This might not seem too surprising given the amount of recreational cycling, plus the increase in people who commute by bicycle to their jobs (between 1990 and 2009, commuting in this manner increased by 64%), but still, there are questions as to why some states prove to be so much more dangerous than others to ride a bicycle in.

Dangerous states

In 2011, Florida alone saw 125 cyclist deaths, followed by California with 114, New York with 57, Texas with 43, and Illinois with 27. Now, compare that to the states Delaware, Rhode Island, Maine, West Virginia, Vermont, and Idaho – six states that in 2011 saw not a single cycling casualty. What are the reasons behind these differences? The answers are as yet not entirely clear, but surely a variety of factors must be at work. We can imagine that the small size of Delaware and Rhode Island would play a part in their lack of causalities in 2011, but what then of the number of deaths in Texas, relatively small when you consider that state’s great size? New York state and Florida are much smaller than the Lone Star State, but showed higher death rates. The ratio of urban to rural area, then, and the concentration of a given population, must play a part in the equation in addition to a state’s landmass. Another major element, though, would be the fact that bicyclists are not inclined to pursue their activity in poor weather. In that light, let’s look again at some of these states that are seeing a greater occurrence of fatalities. Florida, Louisiana, California, Texas…states where the winter months are not going to deter cycling enthusiasts and bicycle commuters. Those folks are still pedaling along in the warmer states during periods of the year when their counterparts in chillier regions are storing their bikes until the snow and ice melt. Might we also consider a state’s percentage of immigrant bike riders, who may not possess a driver’s license and have not been educated in the rules of the road, which apply even to the use of bicycles? If so, perhaps more effort could be made to reach out to them in their communities, to ensure their safety.

Vulnerable Road Users

Seven US states employ a specific approach to protect what are called “Vulnerable Road Users” – those people who make use of the same roads as cars, but who are at greater risk in the event of an accident because they’re not protected inside the armored metal shell of an automobile. This would include bicycles, motorcycles, horseback riders, and even pedestrians. The seven states that utilize these particular laws are Washington, Utah, Connecticut, Hawaii, Oregon, Vermont, and Delaware. It’s interesting to note that Vermont and Delaware are also among the states that saw no bicycle fatalities in 2011, leading one to speculate that the Vulnerable Road Users laws might have influenced this fact. Again, though, there are so many factors – particular to each state – contributing to the number of bicycle/auto accidents that it’s challenging to come to definitive conclusions as to why, for instance, a state like Delaware is about 1.8 times safer for bicycle riding than Florida or Louisiana.

New legislation

In 2012, a model for new legislation was presented by the League of American Bicyclists’ legal affairs committee, with the aim of instituting Vulnerable Road Users laws across the whole of the country. This proposal calls for stricter penalties for auto drivers who cause injury or death to those who fall under the Vulnerable Road Users categories, due to negligent driving. Penalties for being found guilty of such an offense would include having one’s license suspended for a minimum of six months, paying a fine of up to $2,000, a period of community service, a safe driving education course, and incarceration for up to 30 days.

It takes two

It bears reminding that careless auto drivers aren’t always at fault in accidents involving bicycles, particularly when one remembers that many bike riders are children, whose reckless or impulsive cycling might send them into the path of danger. Many adults, too, don’t follow proper cycling behaviors, especially in cities with their bustling and often complicated street traffic. Cyclists should ride in the proper lanes, use appropriate hand signals, come to a halt at stop signs and traffic signals just as a motorist would do, make use of a light when cycling at nighttime, and of course always wear a helmet. When it comes to using the road, vehicle safety is a two-way street for bicyclist and motorist alike.

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