The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) on Tuesday issued its analysis of why increasing numbers of bicyclists are dying on U.S. roads even though some – especially women – now don’t ride because of the risks or say they are riding less because of the danger.
The concrete recommendations in the report seem almost sure to get lost in a brouhaha over helmets.
“Today’s report focuses on how we can prevent collisions between motor vehicles and bicycles by creating an infrastructure that separates bicycles from other traffic because preventing a crash from happening in the first place is our top priority,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said when he introduced the agency’s analysis.
That might have been the focus of Sumwalt and the NTSB board, and it is the reason the majority of cyclists die. But what attracted most public attention was the very last recommendation in the report: the consideration helmet use be made mandatory.
The media quickly hit that hot button and tagged Sumwalt’s focus on preventing collisions as among “other” safety ideas.
“The National Transportation Safety Board this week said laws mandating helmet use, among other safety actions, would reduce traffic fatalities involving cyclists but the recommendation is getting pushback from bike advocates” was the lead on the Washington Post story.
There is no argument that bicycle helmets will in some crashes save lives. There is some debate as to their affects at a population level. There is evidence that helmets influence the behavior of people wearing them, and that because of this cyclists wearing helmets take more risks than those who are helmetless.
And there are a variety of studies that document that cycling, or many other forms of aerobic exercise, help people live longer and healthier lives. All of those things factor into whether the relatively few lives saved by bicycle helmets would make a difference at a population level.
But helmets can and do save lives, and they could save more.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) indicate that requiring passengers in motor vehicles to wear helmets would likely save thousands of lives. More than 10,500 of the 56,800 people who died of traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) in 2014 were motor vehicle occupants, the CDC reported.
Not all of those people would have lived if they were wearing a helmet just as helmets will not save all cyclists from deadly TBIs. But given that motor vehicle helmets are far more substantial than bicycle helmets, the ratios of survivors would likely be greater.
If even a tenth of motorists survived thanks to a mandatory, motor-vehicle helmet law, the number of survivors would actually outnumber the 857 bicyclists killed by motor vehicles in 2018. The NTSB offered no estimate of how many of those cyclists might have lived if they had been wearing helmets, but surely some would have.
Most U.S. motorcycle drivers and passengers – 71 percent, according to the International Safety Council – now wear helmets. But like the other “vulnerable road users,” as Sumwalt described them, their odds of surviving a crash involving a car or truck are not good even with a helmet.
The NTSB studied motorcycles and pedestrians before cyclists and found all three categories of the dead had one thing in common:
“Vulnerable road users are those who share the road with motor vehicle drivers, but do not have the occupant protection that is required in such vehicles,” Sumwalt said.
“They are the road users who are most likely to lose life and limb on our roads and highways. And of all modes of transportation, highway transportation is the mode in which the lion’s share of deaths and injuries occur.”
When it comes to cyclists, some of the deaths are clearly attributable to their bad driving. The NTSB figures would indicate about 30 percent of the approximately 2,400 deaths from 2014 to 2016 involved cyclists failing to yield to traffic or losing control.
But the most common fatal accident involved a motorist overtaking a bicyclist at midblock and killing him or her. The NTSB did not report how many of the drivers involved in those accidents were on their phones or texting.
Neither did the NTSB report provide any hint as to the size of the texting-while-driving threat to cyclists although other data on texting and driving indicates a growing problem.
‘Each day in the United States, approximately 9 people are killed and more than 1,000 injured in crashes that are reported to involve a distracted driver,” the CDC reported in 2017.
“Texting while driving is especially dangerous…,” the agency noted. “When you send or read a text message, you take your eyes off the road for about 5 seconds, long enough to cover the length a football field while driving at 55 mph.”
The NTSB report did note that a study of 5,266 bicycle/motor-vehicle crashes in four states in 2017 revealed that serious or fatal injuries were “twice as likely in midblock crashes” as in other crashes and “65 percent more likely in areas with 30-35 mph posted speed limit compared to 25 mph or less.”
When a motorist takes his or her eyes off the road, the faster the vehicle is traveling the more distance it covers, and the greater the difference in speed between the motor vehicle and a vulnerable road user the greater, in general, the injuries to the latter.
The NTSB’s solution to this problem as regards cycling was a call for separated bike lanes and improved intersections, which some cities have begun building.
“We have identified ways that bicycle safety can improve, and the organizations that can make the improvements happen,” Sumwalt said. “The question is whether these organizations will act.”
The NTSB staff report said 35 states “reported recommending (separated bike lanes) but only four states had them installed along their state roadways.”
The NTSB also suggested making bicycles more visible with lights and reflectors, although the research there is even more conflicting than that on helmets; using adaptive headlight systems to allow drivers to better see the road without blinding oncoming motor vehicles, which might also save some moose in the state of Alaska; eliminating large-vehicle blind spots, which is being done with cameras in some parts of the world; putting collision avoidance systems in all new cars; and developing “connected vehicle technologies.”
Such technology, according to the Department of Transportation, “would enable cars, buses, trucks, trains, roads and other infrastructure, and our smartphones and other devices to “talk” to one another. Cars on the highway, for example, would use short-range radio signals to communicate with each other so every vehicle on the road would be aware of where other nearby vehicles are.
“Connected vehicles could dramatically reduce the number of fatalities and serious injuries caused by accidents on our roads and highways. While the number of people surviving crashes has increased significantly thanks to airbags, anti-lock brakes, and other technology, the USDOT is shifting its focus from helping people survive crashes to preventing crashes from happening in the first place.”
If cyclists could be wired into the system to make their lives safer, it would be a first for DOT because that claim of rising numbers of people surviving crashes thanks to motor vehicle technology only applies to people in cars and trucks.
For vulnerable road users, technology appears only to have made their lives more deadly, dangerous and scarier. A 2012 survey of Seattle female cyclists found that 79 to 84 percent of them had seen enough distracted drivers on the roads to cause them concern about cycling.