Like just about everyone else, I have always assumed that the lack of protection afforded cyclists meant that we fare far worse in collisions than the occupants of motor vehicles.
After all, we don’t have seat belts and airbags — let alone a couple tons of steel and glass — to protect us. Just a thin shell of foam covered in plastic and a maybe bit of chamois between our legs.
But I was wrong.
For all the cycling deaths we are seeing and the lack of protection a bicycle provides us in a crash with another automobile, I wonder if fatality numbers are proportionally higher than that of motor vehicle occupants?
Fortunately, the answer was readily at hand.
Just yesterday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released the latest traffic fatality statistics for 2010, showing an overall drop in traffic deaths from 1.13 deaths per million vehicle miles traveled in 2009 to 1.09 fatalities per million miles in 2010. And a drop of over 1,000 traffic deaths over the pervious year, from 33,808 to 32,788.
And yes, that’s a significant improvement.
Even if an average of 90 traffic deaths a day is hardly good news.
The news is also better for cyclists, as biking deaths have dropped to 618 — the lowest total in 35 years — despite a dramatic upsurge in ridership.
That’s still an average of 1.7 riders dying on our streets everyday. Nearly 12 every week. Over 51 every month.
And it is still far from acceptable.
The real surprise came when I dug a little deeper into those figures.
According to the NHTSA figures, excluding motorcyclists, roughly 2,009,000 motor vehicle occupants — drivers and passengers — were seriously injured on American roads last year, compared to 23,946 fatalities. That gives a ratio of 83.9 motor vehicle injuries for every death.*
For the same year, roughly 51,000 cyclists were seriously injured compared to 618 deaths, for a ratio of 83.5 to one.
Look at that again — 83.9:1 for motor vehicles, compared to 83.5:1 for cyclists.
In other words, you have virtually the same risk of dying in a traffic collision riding your bike, with little or no protection, as you have in a car or truck surrounded with safety features.
Of course, that does not take into account the frequency of collisions. While the NHTSA can cite a rate of 1.09 deaths per million miles of vehicle travel, no such figures exist for bikes, as there is no quantifiable method of determining how many miles are travelled by bike each year; any estimate you might see is nothing more than an semi-educated guess at best.
But those figures clearly show, once a wreck severe enough to cause serious injury occurs, you face no statistically greater risk on a bike than you would in a car.**
Don’t know about you, but I’m pretty damn shocked.
* Motorcyclists face a significantly greater risk, with 82,000 injuries compared to 4502 fatalities, for a ratio of 19:1.
**Update: One important distinction I failed to make. As maxutility pointed out, the data doesn’t show the same injury to death ratio for all car and bike collisions, but only those severe enough to result in injury. I’ve adjusted the copy to reflect that. The data does not show whether you are more likely to be seriously injured in a collision riding a bike or in a motor vehicle, just the ratio of serious injuries to fatalities.