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National ‘Bicyclist Safety’ report gets actual safety trends backwards

Posted by Content Coordinator on Thursday, October 30th, 2014

Excerpted from original post on

By Michael Andersen, News Editor

A report released by the Governors Highway Safety Association Monday is a perfect example of what can go wrong when safety experts get stuck behind their own windshields.

The GHSA, an umbrella organization for state departments of transportation whose claims to fame include popularizing the phrase “aggressive pedestrians,” is surely staffed by smart people who are working hard to reduce injuries and deaths. But the problems in this report start right at the top.

Let’s take them one by one.

The language framing the report is pointlessly divisive

  • Spotlight on Highway Safety: Bicyclist Safety

As Jonathan has said for years, the word “bicyclist” is silly because it’s rooted in the idea that people are monomodal — that a “bicyclist” is a fundamentally different sort of person than a “motorist.” We should all just use the word “bicycling” instead. Anybody can bicycle. (And most Americans do.)

As the headline of the GHSA press release about this report (and therefore the framing of umpteen media stories being published about it) shows, this isn’t a trivial concern:

  • Bicyclist Fatalities a Growing Problem for Key Groups
    Adult Males and Urban Environments Now Represent Bulk of Deaths

As if fatalities among these “key groups” aren’t a problem for the rest of us, too?

Then there’s the subtitle, which gives a hint of the single biggest problem in this report…

The report makes no effort to calculate fatality rates as a share of ridership

Here’s one of the five terrifying infographics helpfully released by the GHSA, in accordance with the modern media best practice of making it easy for reporters to do their job entirely by copying and pasting.


I’m not sure why report author Dr. Allan Williams, the former chief scientist for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, decided to assess the risk of biking by tallying the number oftimes somebody died rather than considering the probability that somebody would die.

In any case, to help him out, I spent an hour looking up some figures from the 1977 and 2009 National Household Travel Surveys that might help put this report in perspective. For example, it’s possible that the increasing share of bike deaths among adults (shown in the chart above) might have something to do with this:

The rise of adult biking, 1977-2009

With a calculator we can also use Williams’s numbers to estimate the absolute number of adult bike fatalities per year:

Average adult bike fatalities per year

And, oh yeah, it might be helpful to consider this:

Bike trips per year, United States

Hey, you know what? We ought to be able to put this all together and figure out … well, what do you know.

Adult bike fatality rate per trip

For those of you keeping count, that’s a 43 percent decline in the risk of getting on bike.

View full version ( National ‘Bicyclist Safety’ report out today gets actual safety trends backwards

Michael Andersen is the half-time news editor of He joined the team in May 2013 after three years as publisher of Portland Afoot and is proud to be supporting BikePortland’s pursuit of new initiatives. With the other half of his time, he works as the staff writer for The Green Lane Project, a project of bike advocacy group PeopleForBikes that assists and encourages cities in the design of better bike lanes.

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One Response to “National ‘Bicyclist Safety’ report gets actual safety trends backwards”

  1. Nils Ohlson says:

    I *thought* there was something fishy about that alarming “rise in adult cyclist deaths”! Thank you for crunching the numbers for us!

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