Here’s what’s leading to cyclists’ deaths, according to a new federal report

Drivers overtaking bike riders are the biggest cause of death among cyclists, says a study released Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Bike safety is a growing problem that appears to be getting more worrisome, and, the board reported, “current available data likely underestimate the level of bicycling activity in the United States.”

In 2017, 806 cyclists died in crashes with motor vehicles, which it found “was comparable to the deaths resulting from railroad or marine accidents and more than twice the number of deaths resulting from aviation accidents in the same year.” In 2018, the death toll jumped to 857, its highest since 1990.

In March The Bellingham Herald reported there were no fatal crashes, but five serious injuries, among cyclists and bike passengers in 33 total incidents in Bellingham in 2018, according to the state Department of Transportation. In 2008, that figure was one fatality and four serious injuries in 27 bicycle incidents.

Bicycle fatalities as a percent of all Bellingham traffic deaths rose from zero in 2007-2011 to 10 percent in 2012-2016, according to the League of American Bicyclists’ 2018 Benchmarking Report.

The new NTSB report, its most comprehensive look at bicycle safety in 47 years, comes as both Republicans and Democrats in Congress are pushing hard to provide more funding for what they see as a growing problem.

The safety board’s findings gave them new fuel for their effort.

“If we do not improve roadway infrastructure for bicyclists, bicyclists will die who otherwise would not,” said NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt.

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A bike box is installed in summer 2019 on Chestnut Street near State Street in downtown Bellingham. A new National Transportation Safety Board report says “motorists overtaking bicyclist ”were by far the leading cause of bike fatalities between 2014 and 2016 nationally. Robert Mittendorf The Bellingham Herald

“If we do not enhance bicyclist (visibility), likewise, additional bicyclists will die,” he told the board as it met Tuesday to discuss the report. “If we do not act to mitigate head injury for more bicyclists, additional bicyclists will die.”

He noted that “in the event that a bicycle crash cannot be prevented, we know that the best possible protection for a bicyclist is always wearing a helmet.”

The report’s findings that showed that “motorists overtaking bicyclist” were by far the leading cause of bike fatalities between 2014 and 2016. Most of the crashes occurred mid-block.

“In about one-third of cases in which bicyclists died in crashes involving a motor vehicle overtaking a bicycle, the driver reported not detecting the bicyclist before the crash,” the board reported.

Trailing as causes of fatal crashes were problems with parallel bike and vehicle lanes, bicyclists failing to yield and bicyclists making a left turn.

Ivan Cheung, a board transportation research analyst, noted that separate bike lanes would be be a big step in helping making cyclists safer. But while 35 states reported recommending such lanes, only four states have had them installed on state roadways. The states were not named.

The League of American Bicyclists found Bellingham to be the seventh-most bicycle-friendly city in Washington state, and Washington tops in the nation among bicycle-friendly communities, according to the earlier Herald story. And, according to the 2014 American Community Survey, Bellingham ranks 21st among U.S. cities greater than 65,000 population with the highest rates of bicycle commuting.

Bellingham currently has 51 miles of “bikeways” — including “bike boulevards” on residential streets and separated bike lanes on busier roads — along the 658 lane miles of city streets, according to the 2019 Transportation Report on Annual Mobility that was cited in the earlier Herald story. Of the 160 miles of bikeways planned for the city’s entire bike network, about one-third was complete through 2018.

A summary of the NTSB’s report offered several recommendations to different federal agencies, including separate bike lanes and a “comprehensive national strategy to increase bicycle helmet use among bicyclists of all ages that would include, at a minimum, a model all-ages bicycle helmet law.”

It also noted that larger blind spots in larger vehicles “make it more difficult for their drivers to detect vulnerable road users,” and urged better blind-spot detection systems.

The League of American Bicyclists was pleased with the board’s recommendations.

In a statement, it said “the safety of people who bike will be best advanced through coordinated improvements to streets and cars, which kill more than 90% of people who die while biking, rather than laws that may be enforced in discretionary and discriminatory ways.

“As advocates for both bicycling and bike safety, the League recommends that people wear a helmet while riding and most importantly recommends that people ride a bike,” it added.

David Lightman is McClatchy’s chief congressional correspondent. He’s been writing, editing and teaching for 47 years, with stops in Hagerstown, Riverside, Calif., Annapolis, Baltimore and since 1981, Washington.