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tl-w.gif (842 bytes)tr-w.gif (841 bytes)Is Cycling Dangerous?

By Ken Kifer

The idea the cycling is very dangerous is common. When I ask people why they don't ride a bicycle, the most frequent reasons are, "It's too dangerous" and "It's too difficult." The perception that cycling is dangerous even causes some to confine their cycling to off-road who value cycling and who are not worried about it being too difficult. And it also leads to calls for mandatory helmet laws and for separate bike paths. Some of this fear stems from our own fears of driving cars in traffic among aggressive drivers. But cycling is actually much safer than traveling in an automobile.

To some extent, this fear of cycling actually leads to additional deaths. For instance, parents do not instruct their children in how to ride in the street, but instead they just tell them to "watch for cars" and "to get off the road." However, the day comes when these primitive rules aren't good enough, and the traffic report reads something like this: "The child was riding after dark without a light, on the wrong side of the road, and went through the intersection without stopping, even though the automobile had the right of way. The motorist couldn't stop quick enough." In fact, the majority of cycling deaths are accidents like this one; that is, the behavior of the bike rider made no sense at all.

In the 70's, the majority of cycling deaths happened to children. The 1978 NHTSA statistics show clearly the connection between age and death:

Fatal Bike Accidents
Age Group 1978 1992
1-9 238 109
10-19 422 219
20-29 92 98
30-39 43 117
40-49 16 83
50-59 17 58
60-up 21 93

Unfortunately, I don't have any information about the percentage of adult cyclists on the road in 1978. It could be true that more children rode bikes than adults in 1978, but I doubt it. First, most children ride bikes for only about ten years. Second, the baby boomers were adult age by this time. Third, the cycling boom among adults had started in the late 60's; in fact, 1973 was the peak year for bicycle sales, so many adults were riding bikes by this time. I certainly remember seeing more adult cyclists then than I do now. But even if more children were riding bikes than adults, I'm sure the adults were riding many more miles. Children seldom ride out of their neighborhoods; adults ride to work and across the USA. During this period of time, thousands of adult cyclists were crossing the United States every year on the Bikecentennial trail.

More recent statistics, such as the 1992 figures above, show a surprising change. The proportion of adults getting killed has risen dramatically even though the total number of deaths have dropped. In the early 70's, 2/3rds of the deaths were to children 16 or younger, now 2/3rds are to people older than 16. (However, children still have a higher death rate.)

What could bring about such a change? One important change has been our attitude towards drunken drivers. Between 1985 and 1996, this helped diminish the rate of death per 100,000 children in automobiles from .95 to .70, while walking from .39 to .19, and when bicycling from .24 to .09. However, I also believe that there has been a decline in the amount of time that children spend cycling during the same time; I'm afraid that we're raising a generation of couch potatoes.

None of these declines can explain the large increase in the number of adults killed while cycling; in fact, the number of adults killed should have also dropped due to the decrease in drunk driving. My experience in traveling by bike around the country tells me that we have a new generation of cyclists who no longer obey the traffic laws, so I think that their behavior is responsible for most of this change.

You see, those of us who began riding in the 60's and 70's had a strong belief that bicycles should be operated as vehicles. As a result, we adopted the behavior of riding in traffic in a safe and predictable manner as operators of vehicles, according to the law. However, during the mid-80's, there was a shift in the message going out. Many of these newer riders did not learn that they had an equal right to us the road. And cycling magazines and brochures no longer explained how to behave in traffic but started preaching, "Wear a helmet at all times!" This new message did not teach the newcomers how to avoid accidents, and it emphasized how dangerous cycling was. At the same time, mountain bikes were introduced, making sidewalk riding more practical and useful road speeds more difficult due to their heavy wheels and tires.

Now I frequently see adult bike riders riding on the sidewalks, on the wrong (left) side, through red lights and stop signs without even looking, and at night without lights, all violations of the traffic codes and all behavior that they would not do when driving cars. It's quite ironic to see some well-dressed, responsible-looking adult wearing a helmet for safety and ignoring every law and safety rule. It's disgraceful behavior too: Andy and Barney used to arrest even the little kids in Mayberry who rode their bicycles on the sidewalk.

People wonder how riding bikes on sidewalks can be dangerous. These accidents occur at intersections and driveways, the former more deadly. Unwilling to dismount and often unwilling to wait for the light, the bike rider starts across the intersection parallel to the main road, completely hidden from a turning motorist until the last second, when it's often too late. A study of these risks was made in 1994 and showed that sidewalk cycling is almost twice as dangerous as cycling in the street, and cycling against the traffic on the sidewalk is over four times as dangerous as cycling in the street. For a good discussion, see The Dilemmas of Bicycle Planning.

Pedestrians are safer than sidewalk cyclists because 1) they are moving more slowly, 2) they can look behind more easily, and 3) they can jump to one side. However, even if these sidewalk cyclists were as safe as pedestrians, they wouldn't be very safe, since seven times as many pedestrians are killed each year as cyclists.

Two of the strongest causes for fatalities, then, are 1) a common misperception that a cyclist has no rights on the road and 2) a fatalistic belief that cycling in traffic is dangerous per se and that traffic accidents are completely unavoidable. But not only does the cyclist have full rights to the road, but the cyclist is also safer on the road than the motorist. To show that accidents are avoidable, here is a list of the most serious kinds of accidents, the ones most likely to result in death, from a recent study (Crash-Type Manual for Bicyclists by Carol Tan):

  1. 5.1% The bicyclist exited a driveway in front of an on-coming vehicle.
  2. 4.3% The bicyclist turned left in front of a passing vehicle.
  3. 3.9% The motorist was overtaking the bicyclist, cause of the accident unclear.
  4. 2.7% The bicyclist was struck while traveling on the wrong (left) side of the road.
  5. 1.4% The bicyclist, on the wrong side, turned right in front of a vehicle.
  6. 1.3% The motorist was overtaking the bicyclist and failed to see him.
  7. 1.2% The bicyclist lost control and swerved into the path of the vehicle.
  8.  .8% The bicyclist made a normal left turn but ignored on-coming traffic.
  9.  .6% The motorist lost control of the car and struck the bicyclist.
  10.  .5% The motorist struck a play vehicle (big wheel, bike with training wheels).

Together, these crashes, the ones most likely to result in death, accounted for 21.8% of the total number of bike-motor vehicle collisions in the study. Let's look at some of them individually.

In the first, the cyclist pulling out of a driveway has the responsibility of looking both ways and making sure that doing so is safe. That's all that was necessary. Half of these accidents happened to very young children and most to children.

In the second, a cyclist turning left in traffic needs to look behind and then move into the correct turning position or lane when it is safe to do so. If the rider is unable or afraid to get into that position, he can ride to the curb, dismount, and walk across. Most of these accidents happened to children as well.

Fear of the third accident, when the cyclist gets struck from the rear, encourages people to ride bikes on sidewalks or on the wrong side of the road. But the cyclist does not have to be the naive victim of such crashes. The cyclist can listen to approaching vehicles and be aware if they are passing carefully and safely. By keeping to the right, moving even further to the right, or even pulling off of the road when it seems warranted, the cyclist can avoid getting hit. Some cyclists will want to get rear-view mirrors.

The fourth accident is caused by the cyclist traveling on the wrong side of the road (against traffic). This is both illegal and highly dangerous. See Wrong Way Cycling for this discussion.

The fifth accident also involves a rider on the wrong side, but in this case, he turns in front of traffic. This accident was more common among children. Here the rider is making two deadly errors.

The sixth accident involves a motorist failing to see the cyclist on the road ahead. These accidents happened almost entirely to adult cyclists. The problem of visibility was mostly due to darkness or glare from the sun. Again, the cyclist does not have to be the naive victim. Even though very few bike riders use them, both reflectors and lights are required by law at night. Wearing bright colored clothes during the day also reduces such risks. Just as important, the cyclist must pay attention to each approaching vehicle when the sun is low or at night. He must also remember that motor vehicle headlights will highlight reflectors only when the vehicle is aimed at the bicycle, thus a cyclist on a curve or a dip may be invisible until the last moment. A flashing rear light plus extra caution is important.

In the seventh accident, the loss of control on the part of the cyclist caused the crash. Many motorists tell me that they worry about this kind of accident. Very young children were frequent victims as were middle-aged cyclists, many of whom had been drinking.

There's less to say about the last three. It should be obvious that a cyclist needs to wait for on-coming traffic, that motorists who have lost control are dangerous, and that children on play vehicles are at great risk.

In all of these cases, I have talked only about what the cyclist could do, but motorists need to become more responsible as well. It makes no sense to have safer vehicles and roads and then for motorists to drive like idiots. A part of being a good driver is staying alert for hazards on the road, whether they are other motor vehicles, pedestrians (including children), dogs, farm animals, rocks and tree limbs, or cyclists (also including children). Many motorists who are otherwise careful forget to slow down in poor visibility, to pass only when they can see clearly ahead, and to observe posted speed limits.

Our state and local governments control driver education, they have opportunities for teaching children safer riding in the schools, and they are responsible for police enforcement. While our governments cannot end traffic deaths, they can work to diminish the number.

Parents also need to take time to explain the traffic laws to any children old enough to leave their sight. At the youngest age, children must be taught to stop and look before entering or crossing a street. When children are old enough to ride a bike on the street, they must be taught traffic behavior and about traffic signs. A good way to teach them is to ride with them. Children should not be allowed to ride in traffic alone until in their teens, but they can ride on lightly traveled streets and roads in the meantime. Learning good traffic skills and consideration for others is important even when riding bikes with children on residental neighborhoods and will pay off when the child later rides the bike on the road and even later gets a car.

See How to Ride in Traffic and How to Avoid Traffic Accidents for more details about riding in traffic. John Forester, the author of Effective Cycling also has advice. My point here is that collisions between bikes and motor vehicles are avoidable. The bike rider has an excellent machine for doing so. He has 180� and unobstructed vision at all times, and he can easily scan another 45� on either side. He has stereo hearing, so he's not only aware of how far away the approaching car is, but also if it's passing him safely. He has excellent brakes at his normal cruising speed and can stop in less than a car's length. He has even better faster turning ability and can even jump off the bike when necessary. Finally, operating a vehicle only six feet long and 18 inches wide, he presents a small target for another vehicle to hit.

As a result of the characteristics of the bicycle and of the carefulness of most cyclists, the accident rate for bicycles is very low. (These and other statistics can be found at the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute web site).

Activity # Fatalities per 1,000,000 Exposure Hours
Skydiving  128.71 Snowmobiling .88
General Flying 15.58 Motoring .47
Motorcycling 8.80 Water skiing .28
Scuba Diving 1.98 Bicycling .26
Living 1.53 Airline Flying .15
Swimming 1.07 Hunting .08
Data compiled by Failure Analysis Associates, Inc.

Based on these figures, bicycling is nearly six times as safe as living! What does that mean? It means that if you were immune to all kinds of deaths except cycling accidents and you bicycled 24 hours a day, 365� days a year, that you would, on the average, live nearly six times as long as the average person! We can also see that cycling is only 55% as dangerous as traveling in an automobile per hour. This is an important consideration because it shows the statements about bicycles being dangerous are wild exaggerations. But cycling actually proves to be much safer than motoring because cycling has positive health benefits, reducing other risks, that motoring lacks.

These low figures for the risk of cycling may not seem quite believable to non-cyclists who have heard how dangerous cycling is. Yet, the total number of cycling deaths per year can be found in many sources and is not in dispute. It ranges from 700 to 1,000 depending on the year, or just 1/50th of the total number of all traffic deaths. And we can estimate the death rate ourselves. Of course, we have to know how many cyclists there are. The Bicycle Institute of America calculates that we have over 100 million bike riders in the US, including 55 million adults, and 31 million of those ride at least once a week. Out of the 31 million, nearly 7 million ride much more often: 4.9 million ride to work by bike, 1.7 million make touring rides, and .25 million race their bikes.  How many hours of cycling is this?  The quarter of a million racers are going to need at least 400 hours each to train, so that's 100 million hours. The people traveling to work are going to total 250 hours a year on their bikes (one hour per working day) and the touring cyclists will probably put in the same, so together that's about 1,650 million additional hours. (Three thousand miles a year, or 250 hours, is a typical figure for a regular cyclist, although many ride two or three times as much.   Three thousand miles a year is also the amount needed to ensure good health.)  Then, looking at the 24+ million remaining cyclists who ride once a week, if we say they ride for an hour, that gives us another 1,256 million hours. Combining these figures, we already have 3,000 million hours, even if the other 69 million bike owners never get their bikes out of the garage (but most of the fatalities are going to be among the 69 million, not among the regular cyclists).  Now, taking the Failure Associates rate of .26 deaths per million hours and the fatality figures of between 700 and 1,000 a year, we can calculated that the total number of hours of bicycle use in the US must be between 2,692 and 3,846 million hours a year. So, the two sets of figures are in agreement.

There are other estimates that aren't as high as this. The National Personal Transportation Survey -- a survey focused on automobile traffic -- estimated just 4,000 million miles of bicycle travel in 1990. The Environmental Benefits of Cycling and Walking estimates 2.8 million commuters riding 3,600 million miles, 5 million "personal" riders traveling 3,200 million miles, half a million commercial cyclists hustling 1,800 million miles, 27.5 million recreational cyclists enjoying 9,600 million miles, and 15 million children doing some 2,600 million miles. This estimate of 50.8 million cyclists and 21,000 million miles is lower than my estimate above. For the Failure Associates figures to be correct using them, we would have to assume an average speed of just 7.8 mph.

Even if we accept that cycling has a lower rate of deaths per hour than driving a car, isn't it possible to say that cycling is more dangerous than traveling by car anyway because it takes longer to travel the same distance by bike than by car? No, that's not exactly true either.

First, automobiles cause almost all the injuries. Nearly 90% of cycling fatalities are caused by the cyclists being struck by motor vehicles; on the other hand, there are no motor vehicle operators killed by bicycles. When we look at pedestrian deaths, we find that 5,600 pedestrians are struck and killed each year in the United States by motor vehicles and sometimes one or two by bicycles. This indicates that motor vehicles are dangerous, not bicycles. While it's true that bicycles are not used as much as motor vehicles in this country, statistics from counties where bicycles are used heavily also support the comparative innocence of bicycles in causing traffic deaths. This distinction is not just quibbling; removing all cyclists from the roads would reduce the death rate by less than 2%; removing all motor vehicles from the road would reduce the death rate by more than 95%. The real safety problem is the motor vehicle, not the bicycle.

Second, motorists spend more time on the road than cyclists. The average speed of automobiles is much less than people like to pretend; while one quarter of our cars are on the freeway averaging 58.5 mph, even larger numbers are averaging 13 mph in city driving, and the rest are stuck somewhere between. For instance, Hugh Smith of San Jose, California, installed a timer on his vehicle that measured the hours the engine was running over an eleven year period (or 125,000 miles) and found he averaged just 17 mph during all that time. Using the Failure Associate figures, an average of 1.4 people per vehicle, and the 1,600 billion miles driven, I calculate an average US speed of just 25 mph. This is the same figure also furnished by a cyclist from France for the average speed in his country (I could not find a figure for our country). Assuming the 25 mph average is correct, automobiles are only about twice as fast as bicycles. Second, the average motorist travels about four times as many miles in a year as the average cyclist. So, the motorist is spending more time and at a higher risk. How much risk? The average number of miles per car is about 12,000 per year or 480 hours per year. Assuming that people are at least passengers from the cradle to the grave (75 years), the driver/passenger has a 1/60th chance of dying in an automobile. (I also encountered this same 1/60th chance of dying in a motor vehicle in newsgroup discussion, but I couldn't find the source).

For many years, I have stated that people tend to spend about the same amount of time traveling to work no matter what method of transport they use; thus when better roads are built, people simply move farther from the city. This argument has been often hotly denied, but the transportation issue of Scientific American establishes this as statistical fact. The average person, worldwide, travels for about 66 minutes a day to and from work. This means the average walker lives about a mile and a half from the job, the average cyclist about six miles, and the average motorist about twelve miles. If traveling to work takes the same amount of time, the cyclist still comes out ahead.

However, there are two other ways of doing these statistics: instead of being based on time, they could be based on miles or on trips. I feel statistics based on time make more sense than those based on distance because the time on the road more directly relates to the amount of exposure to risk; for instance, if I had to travel a short distance in the pouring rain, how wet I would get would probably be proportional to the time I was in the rain rather than to the distance I had to cross. Using trips to compute the accident rate also seemed illogical to me; after all, we can't determine either miles or hours from it, and then I thought, maybe risk is closer related to the number of trips rather than the distance involved. The people who ride the shortest distances generally are the ones who ignore the traffic laws. That's just a guess, though.

At any rate, the John Hopkins Injury Prevention Center (funded by Snell) uses trips as a basis for measuring risk. The center says there are 1.8 billion bicycle trips per year in the US with one death for every two million trips. These figures cannot be reconciled with the ones from Failure Associates, unless we assume that the average trip was approximately two hours long, which is not believable. The only conclusion is that the John Hopkins figures are based on half the number of miles by cyclists per year.

Whichever set of figures we use, we discover a very low danger from cycling. Let's say the average cyclist rides 250 hours per year, say 3,000 miles. And we'll say that this person rides 60 out of the normal 75 years of life, or 15,000 hours and 180,000 miles total. Using the Failure Associates figures, this person is going to have to have a 1/256 chance of getting killed while cycling during his lifetime.

Of course, the figures from John Hopkins are less hopeful. Let's suppose he makes 250 bike trips a year for those 60 years; that's 15,000 trips. Then he has a 1/133 chance of dying with his bike shoes on.

However, these figures assume that this cyclist is no safer than any other cyclist. In truth, anyone who rides this much is going to have to acquire real cycling and traffic skills; it's the children and the child-like riders who are more likely to bite the dust.

When we look at other causes of death in the US, cycling deaths seem insignificant. The total number of injury-related deaths are 150 to 200 times the number of cycling deaths.

Injury-Related Deaths
Motor Vehicle 40,982
Suicide 30,484
Homicide 25,488
Falls 12,646
Poisonings 7,082
Fires/Burns 4,803
Drowning 4,186
Other 19,984
Total 145,655

When over 50 times as many people are killed in cars or walking across the street, over 40 times as many commit suicide, over 30 times as many get murdered, over 15 times as many die from falling, over 9 times as many get poisoned, over 6 times as many die of burns, over 5 times as many drown, and over 25 times as many die of various and sundry causes, why is cycling perceived to be dangerous?

I suppose that someone could argue that while the opportunities for death are very small with cycling, the opportunities for getting hurt are still very great. However, the statistics do not bear this out either. The John Hopkins Center also informs us that there are 300 cycling injuries requiring a hospital visit for every million trips. This means the average person who cycles five times a week can expect to go 12� years between such accidents. Most of these accidents are the usual emergency room visits in which no long lasting harm has been done. William E. Moritz has written up two surveys of dedicated cyclists, one of bicycle commuters and one of LAB members in 1996 which show the following crash rates (the injury must exceed $50 in value to count -- also 70% of the travel was on regular streets):

Risk of Crash Per Million Miles (333 years)
  Commuters LAB members
Major streets 77.6 66
Minor streets 65.7 95
Lanes/Bike routes 30.8 42/51
Paved Trail/Off-road 41.0 142/454
Other (sidewalks) 327.1 1661

Pedalling Health compares the risks per hour (in Australia) of cycling to the risks of some of other sports that children engage in (to qualify here, the injury must require a hospital visit):

Injuries per Million Hours
Football 1,900
Squash 1,300
Basketball 1,100
Soccer 600
Bicycling 50

Again, we can see that the risk of injury in cycling is extremely small.

On the other hand, failure to get enough exercise has much more serious and more certain results. According to results published in Pedalling Health (from the USA), a sedentary lifestyle fosters coronary heart disease, strokes, obesity, and type II diabetes. An excellent way to fight such life destroyers is to travel by bicycle, and Pedalling Health indicates that 60 miles a week is necessary to provide the necessary protection. Henry Thoreau once said, "A man sits as many risks as he runs" and for once Thoreau understated it.

Here are the primary causes of death, including the risks that one runs by not riding a bicycle:

The Top Ten Causes of Death for 1995
Cause No. of deaths How to avoid (cycling-related methods only)
Heart Disease 737,563 Exercise Diet Stress Management
Cancer 538,455      
Strokes 157,991 Exercise   Stress Management
Lung Disease 102, 899 Exercise    
Adverse effects  93,320      
Pneumonia, flu 82,920      
Diabetes 59,254 Exercise Diet Weight Management
AIDS 43,115      
Suicide 31,284 Exercise    
Liver Disease 25,222      
National Center for Health Statistics

These figures show an opportunity for bicycling to help save over one million lives in the US each year. (Note: research indicates cycling can help against some forms of cancer also.) The primary benefit would be through the exercise itself, which strengthens the heart, lungs, and circulatory system and cheers up the depressed. In addition, cycling would be beneficial in weight and diet management, by helping to burn excess fat. Finally, riding a bike could help get rid of stress. Cycling alone could not entirely stop or prevent all these ailments, but it would have a powerful ability to reduce them. For example, just riding a bike 30 miles a week (half the distance we should be riding every week) reduces the chance of heart disease by 50% (from Pedalling Health).

However, in another sense, the million people listed above are not the ones we should be worried about. Many of them could have only been helped with prayers and medication. However, there are millions of other people who are slowly becoming like them: the 5.7 million already showing signs of heart disease, the people carrying too much weight, the people who no longer have enough energy, the people who are spending more time sitting down than they used to, and even the young people who are not building up strong bones, muscle, and hearts; all these people may someday die in one of these horrible ways unless they start exercising now. But no matter whether people start exercising early or late, cycling has the ability to regenerate their bodies and to keep them from joining the million lives lost a year, and that is a lifetime risk of not 1/256 or 1/133 but of 1/3. In addition, most other people, who are already getting enough aerobic exercise to avoid these diseases, would feel younger and stronger if they would exercise more.

Riding 3,000 miles a year, enough to ensure full health benefits, does not have to take any extra time or money. Over three quarters of all car trips in the US are for distances under ten miles and nearly 60% are for distances under five miles. All that is necessary to get enough exercise is to ride the bike to work, to run errands, to visit friends, and to enjoy the countryside. Riding the bike instead of driving the car on those shorter trips will save 30 to 40� a mile and thousands of dollars in a year's time. In addition, the cyclist will be getting more fun out of life, and helping reduce pollution and global warming at the same time.

At any rate, if someone tells you that bicycling is dangerous, point out that heart disease alone is almost 1,000 times more dangerous.

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