California traffic deaths continue to drop, but OC bike fatality stats just don’t add up

Evidently, 2010 was a very good year for Orange County cyclists.

Or maybe not.

According to official statistics released recently by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, only three cyclists were killed in the county in 2010.

This in a county that averages one bicycling fatality a month. And one that suffered 21 bike deaths just five years ago, in 2006.

Judging by the stats, the county has shown a remarkable — or perhaps miraculous — improvement in bicycle safety.

Then again, things aren’t always what they seem.

Overall, the state of California showed continued improvements in roadway safety, with the total traffic fatalities in the state dropping from 4,240 in 2006 to 2,715 in 2010 — a decrease of over 1,500 in just five years.

Then again, one death is one too many.

And 2,715, while much better than previous years, still reflects the ongoing carnage on streets, as far too many people leave their homes or jobs, and never return again.

I’ll leave it to others to speculate why we’ve seen such a dramatic drop in motorist deaths.

But just imagine how much that figure could be improved if we could just get people to stay the hell away from their cars when they’re under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Or leave their damn cell phones and other distractions behind once they slide behind the wheel.

Although fighting distracted driving looks like a losing battle as manufacturers seem intent on building distraction into their dashboards in order to bring that death rate right back up.

You have to scroll down to the middle of the NHTSA’s page for California before information on bicycling fatalities finally appears.

Surprisingly, even that shows significant improvement over the last five years, with a drop from 141 cyclists killed on California streets in 2006 to 99 in 2010. That matches the total for 2009, although the percentage of the total traffic fatalities represent by cyclists rose from 3% to 4% as other traffic fatalities dropped even more.

Then again, that number may not be entirely accurate. Because a breakdown of the totals on a countywide basis shows one highly questionable total.

And yes, I’m looking at you, OC.

To put those figures in perspective, we can add in last year’s unofficial totals from my own records, along with an average for the six-year period.

As you can see, the totals for 2010 pretty much fall in line with the six-year average, even though several counties showed a dramatic increase for last year.

With one glaring exception.

Remarkably, Orange County experienced, by far, the greatest improvement in the state, dropping to the lowest rate per capita (pdf) of any county in the California reporting even a single death, with just 0.10 cycling fatalities per 100,000 population.

By comparison, OC reported .37 bike deaths per 100,000 population in 2009, while L.A. showed .22 for both 2009 and 2010.

Maybe it’s a fluke.

Maybe the county did have an exceptionally good year. Maybe far fewer cyclists really did die on OC streets than might otherwise have been expected.

The problem is, at least two cyclists died after being hit by cars on Orange County streets that weren’t included in that total. Published news reports indicated that at least five cyclists died as a result of traffic collisions in the county that year.

In order to clarify the situation, I downloaded the entire list of 1318 bicycling collisions in Orange County from the CHP’s SWITRS database — every bike-involved collision that was reported to police in the county in 2010.

And like the FARS data, it showed just three fatalities within the county.

  • 4/20/10, Beach Blvd & LaHabra Blvd, La Habra, 49F
  • 7/15/10, Spyglass Hill CT, Newport Beach, 35M
  • 12/22/10, Brookhurst & Villa Pacific Dr, Huntington Beach, 69M

Those dates, locations and ages correspond to the tragic deaths of Annette Ferrin-Rogers, Michael Nine and Jurgen Ankenbrand.

The list also showed 59 other collisions in which a cyclist was severely injured.

Of those, two corresponded to fatal collisions that had been reported in the press:

  • 8/3/10, Newport Coast and RT 73, Newport Beach, 65M
  • 11/17/10, Walnut and Browning Avenues, Tustin, 22M

The first matches up with Dan Crain, who died 12 days after he was hit by a car, and Marco Acuapan, who lingered in a coma until April of last year following the hit-and-run collision that eventually took his life.

Maybe the problem is that they initially survived the collision, only to die days or months after the initial impact.

It could be argued that Dan Crain died as a result of the surgeries he was subjected to following his collision; however, those surgeries were performed to treat injuries he received in collision and would not have been necessary otherwise. Meanwhile, Acuapan’s death was a direct, if somewhat delayed, result of the collision that put him in a coma until the day he died.

Maybe Orange County authorities are splitting hairs by excluding their deaths.

But that appears exactly the argument Orange County is making by excluding their deaths from the county’s reported fatalities. Even though it’s hard to argue that Crain and Acuapan might not still be here if they hadn’t both been hit by cars.

Which makes me wonder if there were other deaths that year that we don’t know about. In the absence of any other news reports — and trust me, I’ve looked — we can only hope that no other deaths are hidden among the other 57 severely injured cyclists included in the SWITRS data that never made the news.

After all, it’s only in the last year or so that the press has started taking cycling collisions seriously as bicycling gains in popularity and riders press for more accurate reporting; in years past, it wasn’t unusual for cycling deaths to go virtually unnoticed by the mainstream press.

But even if you count all five fatalities, instead of just the three that were officially reported, 2010 would seem to be an exceptionally good year for Orange County cyclists. And by far, the county’s safest year on recent record.

Sadly, though, it’s not one local authorities can much take credit for; it appears to be a fluke, as cycling fatalities bounced right back with at least 13 deaths the following year.

And just three months into this year, Orange County has already seen three cyclists killed in traffic collisions — as well as a fourth who may have died of a heart attack as a result of a fall while riding, or perhaps the other way around.

Clearly, the county has a lot of work to do to make their streets safe for all users.

Regardless of what may or may not have occurred two years ago.

*Based on primarily on published news stories, as well as CHP reports.

11 comments

  1. Thanks for writing about the inconsistencies in the data.

    There likely are methodology rules that the agencies must follow to categorize a cause of death as “death while bicycling.” I don’t know what the rules are, but to be useful, the rules should follow the same logic as the criminal codes.

    If an illegal act–either intentional or unintentional–was the cause of physical harm to another person, then that perpetrator can be held responsible, even when death occurs sometime after the initial harm. Similarly, if a cyclist dies as a result of injuries sustained in a collision with a motor vehicle, then the collision should be considered the cause of “death while bicycling.”

    Without that underlying methodology, the stats are useless b/c they cannot be used to improve safety on the roadways.

  2. Here’s an example (albeit from 2000) of inaccurate reporting of a severe injury (compound fracture +) inflicted by motorists on a cyclist in Corona del Mar:

    -Title of Daily Pilot article: “Bicyclist Suffers Broken Leg on PCH”

    -Actual cause of injury, per the article: cyclist doored by driver exiting parked Volkswagen; run over by driver of passing Land Rover…

    http://articles.dailypilot.com/2000-08-19/news/export57338_1_bicyclist-opening-door-land-rover

    This is particularly relevant because part of the 2011 Newport Beach Bicycle Safety Committee’s rationale for not advancing sharrows on PCH in Corona del Mar was a historical absence of the kind of accident (doorings) sharrows are meant to prevent.

  3. And again:

    -Title of Daily Pilot article: “Crash Put Bicyclist in Intensive Care”

    -Actual cause of injury, per the article: Drunk driver in Jeep runs over cyclist in bike lane on Superior Avenue near Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Beach…drunk driver flees…

    http://articles.dailypilot.com/2006-09-25/local/dpt-critical25_1_superior-avenue-newport-beach-west-coast-highway

  4. safetrec says:

    It looks as if you have all the data you need, but you should check out our GIS crash mapping website at http://www.tims.berkeley.edu

    And yes, sadly, there is a statistical “rule” about the period of time a crash victim survives after the event that means that some fatalities are never recorded as such. I could ask our stats experts here for a better explanation, if you’d like.

  5. Alan says:

    The discrepancy may also be based on the time you receive the data. If you were sent preliminary data, that could change. I only recently received 2010 SWITRS raw data and it is definitely preliminary.

    • bikinginla says:

      I downloaded it on Friday. Surprising that the data would still be preliminary after 15 months.

    • safetrec says:

      Alan is correct. It takes a while for data to be finalized. There are so many issues about data collection and design. This is especially true for pedestrians. Undercounting of ped and bike crashes is a big problem. Some of your readers might want to know about this upcoming conference in LA. The focus is pedestrians, but, ultimately, data is data.

      https://californiawalks.org/Peds_Count_2012.html Pedestrians Count.

  6. TQ says:

    Ben Crain isn’t listed as a traffic fatality because he survived the crash, and the coroner’s report lists the cause of death as coronary atherosclerosis. The collision didn’t slam any major internal organs too hard or cause a loss of consciousness, so the resulting necessary spinal surgeries might very well have been survivable if his arteries had been in better health.

    Marco Acuapan died in April 2011, so his death should be listed in 2011’s fatalities, right? However, since the brain injury incurred in the collision was the direct cause of both his comatose condition and subsequent death, the cause of death ought to be listed as a traffic collision.

    Alejandro Lopez, Jr. was removed from life support one day after his collision. The official cause of death is listed as “cerebral laceration and hemorrhage” due to “motor vehicle accident,” so if the OC Coroner’s Office is the reporting agency, the involvement of a bicycle is not mentioned at all among in the data provided.

    With insufficient data, the result of any analysis will be erroneous. In the NHTSA’s defense, they’ve recently updated many elements and variables used in data compilation in their Fatal Accident Reporting System. On the other hand, the CHP has not yet adopted the MMUCC (Model Minimum Uniform Crash Criteria) Guideline, which itself will undergo scrutiny next month in preparation for its update next year. Meanwhile, California is slowly working to truly integrate its (flawed) records databases.

  7. TQ, it sounds like you have a deep understanding of this problem. We have folks here at SafeTREC who’ve been working on this for years (literally). Perhaps we could discuss offline. You can email me at safetrec@berkeley.edu Thanks

  8. [...] A Look at Local Traffic Fatality Trends Shows O.C. Bucking the Norm (Biking in LA) [...]

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