Why More Cyclists Are Dying Due to Motor Vehicle Accidents: A Deeper Dive Into Bicyclist Fatalities

Jalesa Campbell
Updated Feb 19, 2021
5 min read
We’ve researched and interviewed experts on bicycle safety to uncover reasons behind increased bicyclists fatalities as well as actions that can be taken to prevent them.

Many of us by now have heard of the recent bike boom during COVID-19, but even in the midst of this return to getting outdoors for exercising and even commuting, the number of bicyclist deaths has seen an unsettling rise.

According to a December 2019 report from The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), 2018 was the deadliest year in 30 years for cyclists. More importantly, the number of cyclist deaths in urban areas has picked up compared to rural areas (IIHS). And according to The League of American Bicyclists’s 2019 Bicycle Friendly State Report, only eight of the fifty states include all five of the below actions to help cyclists:

  • Infrastructure & Funding
  • Education & Encouragement
  • Legislations & Enforcement
  • Policies & Programs
  • Evaluation & Planning

In this post, we take a closer look at bicyclist fatalities, the reasons behind these fatalities, and what can be done to help prevent them.


A Closer Look at Bicyclist Fatalities

With more adults and children hitting the roads to get outdoors or commute during the Coronavirus, it’s important to understand and take a closer look at bicyclist fatalities. We’ve sourced this data from the IIHS — here’s our snapshot:

854 bicyclists lost their lives due to motor vehicle crashes in 2018.

Most bicyclist deaths in 2018 occurred in urban areas.

63% of bicyclist deaths happened on major roads with 37% of total deaths happening at intersections.

The majority of these deaths happened in September, with most occurring between 6 p.m. - 9 p.m.

61% were not wearing helmets — most injuries are usually to the head.

There are two notable trends we see in these statistics.

First, the number of fatalities has increased in urban areas (from 497 deaths in 1975 to 643 deaths in 2018), while rural areas have become relatively safer in that same time (dropping from 506 deaths to 173).. More people are biking in urban areas, with younger people leading the charge.

Additionally, these numbers suggest most bicyclists are out riding in the evenings. This could be for commuting from work, running errands, or for recreational purposes; however, it’s also worth noting that with the increased number of deaths in the evenings, the number of drivers and driver behavior may also play a role.

Let’s take a look at some of the potential reasons why the number of fatalities are increasing.

Behind the Wheel: Why Are the Numbers Growing?

There are a number of potential contributing factors to the increase in cyclist deaths, including the following:

  • More drivers on the road
  • Distracted driving
  • Aggressive driving

More Drivers on the Road — An infographic from PolicyAdvice.net details that ever since the 1950s, drivers on the road have increased by an average of 3.6% each year. With more drivers, there’s greater risk for accidents and the potential for more congestion, leading to “frustrated drivers” (Bicycling.com).

Distracted Driving — With more information competing for our attention these days through texts, calls, emails, music, and other forms, distracted driving has become a big issue. The NHTSA, cites that 2,841 people were killed by distracted drivers in 2018. They also found that 77 bicyclists were killed due to distracted driving. While the number might be a small percentage of the overall population, each of these deaths is preventable.

Aggressive Driving — Another contributing factor is aggressive driving. As author and professor Leon James explained in a NerdWallet post, “Many drivers believe that they take precedence on the road and that cyclists are invaders.” And, if drivers are aggressive because of their perceived superiority, that can sometimes in-turn put cyclists on the defense as they’re more vulnerable to harm. One cyclist stated, “We don’t have bumpers or barriers around us…being assertive when you know you have the right of way is crucial” (NerdWallet).

Another factor to consider with aggressive driving is narcissistic attitudes. In one driving simulation study conducted by The Ohio State University and University of Luxembourg, participants were placed in “frustrating situations” like these:

  • “A car pulling suddenly in front of them”
  • “A traffic jam with two 10-second full traffic stops, one after another”

Three of the drivers ending up “[colliding] into other vehicles,” and the people behind those collisions were linked to higher scores of narcissism than the other drivers. Researchers propose that an “aggression-narcissism link may come from the tendency for narcissists to think that their own time is precious, while not considering the time of others…they tend to react aggressively in general when they don’t get their way.” This can be easy to understand when considering how some drivers just might not be as open to sharing the road with bicyclists. But, there are steps that bicyclists can take to protect themselves.

How Can Bicyclists Protect Themselves? 5 Tips

1. Always wear a helmet

According to the National Safety Council, wearing a helmet can reduce the “risk of head injury by more than 50%.” A helmet cannot guarantee you complete and total safety in the event of an accident, but it can definitely help to prevent head injuries.

2. Wear reflective gear

Wearing reflective clothing and even investing in a flashing tail light are a few options that can help make bicyclists more notable. Road Bike Rider notes that reflective legwear was found to have been more attention-grabbing than reflective tops, mainly because the legs are in motion. The main goal is to make sure you’re noticeable while on the roads.

3. Use hand signals

While riding, it’s also important to use hand signals to let drivers know when you’re slowing down, turning, or stopping. For turning left, hold out your left arm. For turning right, hold your left arm at a 90-degree angle. If you’re slowing down or planning to stop, bend your left or right arm downward at a 90-degree angle. The NHTSA provides this nifty chart.

4. Ride with the flow of traffic

While riding against traffic might seem to provide more visibility, riding with the flow of traffic is actually better. Bicyclists traveling against traffic were found to be more prone to accidents. Plus, by riding in a predictable fashion, you’ll help prevent confusion from other commuters, as well as make it easier for others to pass.

5. Use dedicated bike lanes

When possible, use the dedicated bike lanes that are designated as protected spaces for bicyclists. While there’s no guarantee for safety, these lanes create a significant space from the main road. More than 20 states have protected and buffered bike lanes (The League of American Bicyclists).

How Can We Support Bicyclists?

There are numerous ways that we can support bicyclists. One of the first ways is to make sure that we share the roads safely with them and stop viewing bicyclists as “the Other”.

We talked with Eric Zaverl, Bike + Walk Program Coordinator, for Sustain Charlotte, and he made some very interesting points about making the roads safer for bicyclists. When asked if Charlotte was a bike-friendly city, he said, “No,” and explained that the streets in Charlotte are “not connected,” meaning that there are fragmented areas across the metropolitan area designed for safer bike-riding. He mentioned that oftentimes, bicycle safety is not something that’s top of mind for commuters and that they’re more concerned with getting from Point A to Point B.

As a suggestion, Zaverl urges residents to show their support, which first requires knowing who’s on the ballot for elections, what they’re supporting, and how their initiatives are beneficial. Sustain Charlotte works to help make changes that benefit the community, and transit a large part. Zaverl also noted that changes shouldn’t only be made to benefit cyclists, but all commuters.

We also talked with Will Washam, Bicycle Program Coordinator, with the City of Charlotte. When we asked him what was the biggest problem in Charlotte concerning bicycle riders, he mentioned that inexperience is an issue and learning basic bike-handling skills and riding techniques can help. His no. 1 recommendation to help make Charlotte’s streets safer and kinder is for commuters to be vigilant while traveling. Complacency is easy to get into, and if people are not vigilant while commuting, that can lead to issues.

While this North Carolina city is taking measures to support bicyclists, here’s what several other states across the nation are doing as well.

Which States Are Taking Measures to Protect Bicyclist

A number of states have taken a more progressive stance in supporting bike riders through infrastructure, legislation, education, and other means. Based on data from The League of American Bicyclists, these 10 states have been named the most bike-friendly:

1. Washington

2. Oregon

3. Minnesota

4. California

5. Massachusetts

6. Delaware

7. Colorado

8. Utah

9. Virginia

10. Florida

Out of these 10, only four states currently have implemented all 5 “Bike Friendly Actions” as determined by the League, these being Oregon, Minnesota, California, and Colorado.

Each of the actions are listed below and are essentially “metrics [of] evidence of successful agency, legislative, or advocacy actions that set the state for improvements in the safety and mobility of people who bike within a state.”

  • The Complete Streets Law/Policy
  • A Safe Passing Law of at least 3 feet
  • A statewide bike plan in effect for at least 10 years
  • At least 2% of federal funds directed towards bicyclists and or pedestrians
  • An area of emphasis on bike safety

Washington has held the title as the most bike-friendly state for seven consecutive years. Currently, a statewide bicycle and pedestrian initiative is in the works, and by law motorists must give bicyclists and pedestrians three feet when passing (The League of American BicyclistsWashington Bikes).

Oregon trails Washington as the second most bike-friendly state. Currently, the state has “385 miles of bikeways” in Portland and has dedicated Safe Routes to School with funding set aside annually. This initiative is designed to provide kids with safer ways of commuting to school, whether by biking, skating, or walking.

Moving Forward: Innovative Recommendations

As for ideas that could benefit all commuters across Charlotte, Zaverl mentioned having “hubs” designed for bicyclists, ride sharers, and public transit commuters. In this way, mass commuting as a whole is touched.

One innovation that Washam pointed out was that the City of Charlotte is working towards becoming more bike-friendly through their project Uptown CycleLink. This project will “create a ‘AAA’ (All Ages and Abilities) bike network” that will expand the number of bikeways throughout Uptown Charlotte.

There are also product innovations that can help protect bicyclists as well to include MIPS helmets, bike tail lights, and turn signal gloves. A MIPS bike helmet is designed to prevent concussions and reduce rotational impact. Peloton Magazine writes that “a MIPS equipped helmet is at least 10% better at handling rotational impact than the non-MIPS version.” And while bicycle lights have become more common, riders can also consider using tail lights with turning signals. There are a range of options available on Amazon to choose from. Another alternative to tail lights are turn signal gloves, such as the ones made by Zackees. The Zackees Turn Signal Gloves are designed with an LED panel and interior activation plates that switch on when pressed together.

Our Final Thoughts

What we’ve learned from research and interviews is that, while the number of bicyclists fatalities has increased, all commuters can play  a role in helping to protect the community of bicyclists. For one, we all need to kindly share the roads and remain vigilant while commuting. Bicyclists can help other commuters by properly signaling, wearing noticeable gear, and taking advantage of the innovative products designed to help make cycling safer.

Additionally, there are states making more progressive improvements to help their bicyclist and pedestrian communities. The changes are up to us as a whole. With education, new infrastructure, and legislation, we can make the difference that needs to be made.

Safety and Security Reporter

Jalesa Campbell

Jalesa is one of Safety.com's staff experts on home security, natural disasters, public safety, and family safety. She's been featured on Today.com and elsewhere.

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