Between 1999 and 2009, an average of more than 600 cyclists per year have been killed in collisions with cars and trucks. In the same time period an average of more than 51,000 cyclists per year have been injured in collisions with motor vehicles and other accidents.
Although a fairly large percentage–up to 30% of total cycling accidents–happen to youths under the age of 18, that leaves a large share of fatal cycling accidents that are occurring among adults ages 18 and over. Statistics like these are proof that when it comes to cycling accidents, maturity and riding experience may be no guarantee of safety. Even experienced riders who pay attention to traffic laws, wear proper headgear and install lights and reflectors on their bikes are at risk for fatal accidents..
Ignoring traffic laws is the primary risk for any cyclist. Running stop signs puts cyclists at risks for collisions with vehicles. Riding against traffic patterns, cutting across lanes and giving no indication of your intentions while riding are sure ways to confuse motorists and increase the risk of accidents. Motorists and cyclists must share equal responsibility for the prevention of biking injuries and deaths. Sometimes cyclists put themselves in unnecessary danger. A train in rural Illinois killed a cyclist who was listening to his iPod during a training ride. Apparently he did not hear the train as he approached the crossing.
People driving cars are often similarly distracted by blaring radios, cell phone calls, texting, or simple conversation. All these factors combine to increase risks of motorist colliding with bike riders. Motorists need to increase their overall awareness of cyclists and respect that bicycle riders have the right to use certain types of public roadways.
Some states have passed a “3 foot law” requiring that all motor vehicles maintain at least a 3 foot space between car and bike. On most roadways the width of a general lane can accommodate this gap. But in some locations or on narrow roads, the law may require that motorists wait until a legal passing zone allows their car to get around a cyclist with the 3-foot required margin. Passing closer than 3 feet is not only threatening to cyclists, it can create a vacuum effect that causes a cyclist to lose control. This is especially true on windy days when a biker is already straining to ride in a crosswind, for example.
Drivers who encounter groups of cyclists must take additional precautionary steps beyond maintaining a 3-foot guideline. From a motorist’s perspective, groups of cyclists should be treated in the same fashion as one would use to get around a slow-moving semi-trailer truck. First, the driver should separate hazards and allow room to accelerate and pass by anticipating traffic and conditions further up the road. Factors to consider include curves, hills and landscape obstacles. Anything that might obscure the view is a risk to the passing driver and cyclists. Separating hazards is an important skill for any driver to know, but it becomes particularly important when you are seeking to pass a group of 25 or 30 cyclists.
Some drivers seem to hate having to wait for any number of cyclists on the road. They honk their horns, yell out the window, drive too close and make obscene gestures in a brand of road rage that winds up being a literal threat to everyone involved. Granted, some cyclists have the ugly propensity to hog the road and flaunt traffic laws. That means cyclists need to police each other, especially on group rides where the net effect on traffic can be greatest.
It is best if group ride organizers lay down the laws of conduct before the start of every ride. Most riders already know these rules, but some loose cannons ignore the safety of the group for their own selfish freedoms. Experienced, respectful cyclists know how to trade the lead in orderly fashion (usually in rotation), announce when cars are approaching from the front and rear of the group (Car Back! Car Front!) and give hand signals when braking, turning or slowing down. These practices promote general safety for the group and can help avoid conflicts with drivers. Increased communication avoids last minute decisions that can lead to accidents. Most accidents happen on group rides because of sudden stops, poor communication on direction and swerving to avoid road obstacles. Fellow riders must simply accept the responsibility (and potential unpopularity) of collaring disrespectful riders as a means to preserve the safety of the group.
Whether you are a cyclist or not (and there are between 73M and 83M cyclists in America), here is a short primer on why it is so important to give plenty of room to bicycle riders on the road.
First, road conditions are not always predictable. That rut or pothole may be easy for your car’s fat tires to traverse, but the skinny tires of a road bike might go flat or get caught in a road groove that can cause a rider to flip off their bike. When that happens in a group ride, there is a kinetic effect that can cause 8 or 10 cyclists at once to go down. When it happens alone, it can often result in severe damage to both rider and bike. That is why motorists need to give plenty of room to cyclists, thereby allowing them to move around danger as needed, especially at high speeds. If you have never tried to dart around a pothole at 30mph on your bike, then you may not know how much skill it sometimes take to ride a bike.
Other dangers while riding include chunks of road debris, glass especially, and tar snakes, those swervy lines of black asphalt that turn positively gelatinous in summer heat. When your bike tire gets caught in one of those it can throw you down pronto. All these factors (and more) make safety an important priority when riding bikes on America’s roadways. Every mile of riding must be given considerate attention.
Building roads that make it easier for cyclists to ride would be a good start. But even good road shoulders are no guarantee of safe riding. Most of the road debris, glass and other objects winds up on road shoulders. This road junk puts riders at frequent risk for flats or worse, crashes resulting from loss of control on the bike due to hitting bottles, car part and other objects.
The ideal road setup for cyclists is 3 feet of paved shoulder and a clearly marked white line designating the edge of the main roadway. Keeping both the road and shoulder clean of debris is also a top priority. Regularly scheduled street sweeping could create jobs and heighten public awareness that littering the highways is dangerous as well as unsightly. Bike lanes on public streets are no guarantee of safety. Cyclists are still often hard to see in traffic. Really what it comes down to is increasing awareness that drivers have a responsibility to look out for cyclists, and cyclists have a responsibility ride with respect and caution. That rule applies to riders of all ages, of course.
Governments should also consider putting up signs in area of high traffic for cycling. It is important that we protect this “citizen’s right” in an effort to reduce accidents caused by drivers who drive too close and too fast to get past cyclists.
It is stunning to consider the fact that 5,000 people have been killed in bicycle accidents in the last decade. That’s more than the number of people who died in the 9/11 attacks and more than the number of American soldiers who died in the Iraq War between 2003 and 2008. We should not quote such statistics lightly, but there is a genuine need to address the very real tragedy of people killed and injured while riding their bikes on America’s roads.
We need to keep America’s roads from feeling like a war zone between motorists and cyclists.