Sometimes (all the time) riding on the road feels incredibly sketchy, to put it lightly. I’d say that during a ride I feel threatened nine out of 10 times I get on my bike. I’ve often wondered if it’s more, equal, or less dangerous than other outdoor sports like whitewater kayaking, mountaineering, rock climbing, or surfing. Of course, it depends on the level or extremeness of the sport in which you’re partaking. Obviously class V kayaking is more dangerous than going out for an hour spin, while heading out in waist-high surf is probably quite a bit safer than riding your bike to the grocery store and back. So maybe this comparison of bike riding and other sports isn’t the best option. Also, the danger that comes with going out in big surf or that of attempting to summit a 25K foot mountain is self- or nature-inflicted. One in the same, really. The main danger that comes with riding is not. It is inflicted by other humans, which is incomprehensibly more offensive and maddening.
Since the majority of people in the U.S. (and the world) use bikes as transportation, not for sport, a better “danger comparison” is to driving. U.S. roads are continuing to get more dangerous, what with the country having bounced back from its 2007 recession. More people with jobs, plus cheaper gas, means more injuries and fatalities. Yay, economy! Also, cell phones. Put it down and leave it down when you’re in the car god damn it. I don’t care if you “only” use it when stopped at red lights.
Now, onto the statistics:
According to the U.K.’s Department of Labor, a person riding a bike is 17 times more likely to die, per mile, than someone driving. It may not sound like it, but this is HUGE. To my knowledge the U.S. has never put together any data like this, so I will. I came up with a very similar number for us here in the U.S.
There are a lot of conflicting data from various sources in terms of number of injuries, fatalities, and miles travelled (for cars and for cyclists), so my numbers probably aren’t terrific. But, incorrect data is better than no data at all. Am I right or am I right, modelers?
Passenger vehicle miles driven, excluding motorcycles=2.857 trillion (2014) I used 2014 because there is currently a lot more data for that year than for 2015
Miles ridden by bike= 8.956 billion (This is for 2012–I couldn’t find 2014 data, and other sources suggested closer to 7 or 8 billion miles, but I’ll be optimistic here)
Passenger vehicle fatalities= 21,102 (not including commercial truck drivers or motorcyclist fatalities)
Fatalities for cyclists=720 (2014)
Driving: (21,102 passenger vehicle fatalities / 2.857 trillion miles driven) x 200 million miles driven (so that we don’t end up with a tiny decimal)= 1.48 deaths per 200 million miles driven by car
Riding: (720 cyclists fatalities / 8.956 billion miles ridden) x 200 million miles ridden=16.08 deaths per 200 million miles ridden by bike
So that was 1.48 deaths per 200 million miles driven by passenger car versus 16.08 deaths per 200 million miles ridden by bike. Pretty close to the same ratio of 1 to 17 that the U.K. Department of Labor came up with.
There are discrepancies in the data for U.S. bicyclist fatalities. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that there were over 900 bike fatalities in 2013 when other sources, such as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, reported that there were just 747 in 2013. This may be due to inaccurate police reports and/or the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s (NHTSA’s) inability to report on traffic collisions that occur on private property (like driveways and parking lots).
This poor record keeping goes even further with “serious injuries” sustained by bicyclists. I’ve seen the numbers vary widely, with just 50,000 cyclist injuries, reported by the NHTSA, to half a million injuries (according to the CDC), which is probably a more accurate number given that it is based on what is reported in hospitals, not what is written down in police reports. Again, 531,000 is reported by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, based on numbers of hospital visits, which is why I’ll be using a half million as my number, despite the much lower 50,000 of the NHTSA being quoted a lot more frequently.
Anyways, 2.34 million injuries in 2014 is a standard number, according to the NHTSA, for all traffic injuries combined (this does not take into account those 500,000 bike injuries). From this 2.34 million, 2.046 million are injuries sustained in passenger vehicles.
By the way, a “serious injury” means going to the hospital. Obviously some of these bike injuries are kids going off jumps, people sliding out on gravel or hitting a pothole wrong, and from other events. My point is that not all half a million of these hospitalized bike crashes even have a car involved. Though, the majority do.
More third-grade-level math that the NHTSA hasn’t tried to perform:
Driving: (2.046 million / 2.857 trillion) x 200 million = 143 injuries per 200 million miles driven by car
Riding: (500 thousand / 8.956 billion) x 200 million = 11,166 injuries per 200 million miles ridden by bike
Accordingly, you are 78 times more likely to be seriously injured by riding a bike than driving a car, with every mile you travel.
It would be great if we had better data to get more accurate numbers. But then again, as cyclists we all realize just how dangerous the roads are without that data. Maybe we don’t really want to see those numbers. As always, the only solution to this terrifying problem is to get more people out of their cars and on bikes. To do that we need to get kids riding to school at a young age, lower speed limits, reduce vehicles size, enforce rules that are already in place and create more strict rules to drastically reduce distracted, careless, reckless, and drunk driving. We need fewer parking places, fewer four-lane surface streets, and driving needs to be made less convenient overall. Oil needs to be heavily taxed, and 10,000 times more money needs to be spent on bike infrastructure than what is currently being spent. Our entire culture needs to transform from our current isolated, impatient, violent, self-centered, physically lazy, and consumeristic society, created in part by cars, to something entirely different. Sometimes when I’m really feeling optimistic I like to imagine a country, or at least a city, built for people, not motor-vehicles. A society in which community, human health, and the environment take priority over everything else. Unfortunately, imagining isn’t always easy if you try, because when you experience daily life-threatening encounters, you realize there is no brotherhood of man.
*Footnote: the chances of dying in an automobile crash are 1 in 113 or 0.88% in the US. The National Safety Council argues that you have a 1 in 4,337 chance of dying in a bike crash. But that’s for the average person, who rides 30 miles a year or less. If you rode as many miles as the average person drove in their lifetime, your chances of dying in a bike crash would be 15%, or 1 in 7. Few people would reach that many miles though, since the average person drives 13,746 miles per year.