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Are Roads Becoming More Dangerous For Bike Riders?

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The number of cyclist deaths is up, but the rate of deaths — bolstered by an increased volume of bicycles on the road and trails — is actually down.
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The number of cyclist deaths is up, but the rate of deaths — bolstered by an increased volume of bicycles on the road and trails — is actually down.

The number of bicyclists killed in crashes with automobiles nationwide increased 16 percent between 2010 and 2012, according to a report released today by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), a group that represents states’ highway safety offices.

Bicycling fatalities had been decreasing over the prior three decades.

At least six bicyclists have been killed in crashes in D.C. since 2010. The District averages one or two deaths per year.

While total deaths are on the rise, bicycling advocates point to a different figure they believe is just as important in measuring safety: the fatality rate. For instance, in Washington there are an estimated 1.1 bicycling fatalities per 10,000 biking commuters, one of the lowest rates of any large city in the country, according to a recent study by the Alliance for Biking & Walking.

“As the rate of bicycling increases, the rate of fatalities actually decreases,” said Jeffrey Miller, the advocacy group’s director. “As more people are bicycling the overall number of crashes does not keep pace and actually decline in many cities.”

Among the factors the GHSA blames for the increase in deaths (from 621 in 2010 to 722 in 2012) are alcohol and helmet use. About 25 percent of adult bike riders killed in 2012 were drunk, the report said, and more than two-thirds of all fatally injured cyclists were not wearing helmets.

The report said exposure data (how growing bike travel exposes more bicyclists to potential accidents) provided mixed evidence. Either way, the 16 percent jump in bicycling fatalities outpaced the 1 percent increase in all other motor vehicle deaths during the same three-year period.

“That may be true that the overall [bike fatality] rate could be going down, but one death is one too many and we have to look at that,” said Kara Macek, a GHSA spokeswoman. “We have to look at the numbers. We have to look at where the problem exists. And it exists in urban areas such as D.C.”

The GSHA recommends several approaches to reduce deaths, including stricter enforcement of traffic laws, educating cyclists and drivers about sharing the road, techniques to decrease speeding, and infrastructure changes.

The District already has about 70 miles of bike lanes and DDOT’s new two-year action plan calls for installing 15 additional miles. Bike riding in Washington is getting safer, said DDOT planner Jim Sebastian.

“The [crash] rate is actually going down because we have so many more bicyclists every year. The rate of bicycling is growing at 10 to 20 percent every year and the crashes are not increasing that fast,” Sebastian said.

DDOT is planning safety improvements to existing infrastructure along with plans to add more bike lanes.

“We are improving intersections where we have bike crashes with green paint and channelization for bikes and cars so they know where to go,” Sebastian said. “We are also working on education with our ongoing Street Smart campaign.”

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