Summer is a Time to Ride, a Time to Crash

Age is Key

Finally we want to look at reported statewide collision incidents by age. This is important because it gives some indication about who’s getting injured and killed in bike-involved collisions.

Here we see a marked disparity by age: cyclists 55 and over report fewer serious injuries than do younger cyclists, yet those middle years are a particularly perilous time for cyclists as more are killed on the road. While reported injuries generally decline with age and even show a steeper decline in the older age cohorts, the fatality bell curve by contrast illustrates that age is no protection from the most serious (mortal) collision injuries. Let that be a heads-up to all of us mature road warriors!

Cyclists Killed and injured by age 2005-9 chartFocusing on injuries, younger cyclists clearly don’t fare well; children and adults (even those approaching middle age) seem to take it on the chin, injury-wise. Why? Younger folks are more likely to cycle, and we’re talking absolute numbers here. More cyclists means more injuries all things equal. But of course all things are not equal; children will on balance have less experience and certainly won’t have experience with traffic rules. Indeed we might expect higher rates of injury. But the data isn’t fine-grained enough to differentiate pre-licensed teens, say, from mature adults with five or more years of road experience. Still, the elevated rates of injury do tell as story.

As riders age, injuries do decline but quickly hit a plateau. No further gains are made until we get to the over-55 cohort. That’s curious. Why don’t injuries decline more quickly among those middle-aged riders? One might expect that middle-aged cyclists would be more experienced. For example, an adult is probably less likely to start cycling in his middle-age but probably would continue a lifelong pattern of cycling. That suggests that those age groups are more experienced. And if experience is strongly and positively correlated with safer cycling, we should see an even more precipitous decline.

But we don’t: the single 45-54 age cohort comprises as many fatalities as the 15-to-34 age groups. Only over age 55 do both injuries and fatalities decline in lockstep for older riders. And that is likely because at the right-hand toe of these curves, many fewer are riding. But again we won’t know until we know more about the overall riding population. Could be that the influx of middle-aged hot-dogging riders in spandex are holding up the both the curves in the 45-54 cohort. Ride safely, guys!

The Take-Away

It is important to know what the data suggest about our own chances of injury or death on the road. If we are to maximize our odds, we would do well to regard these figures. Middle-aged riders should keep in mind that in the event of serious collision they have a proportionately higher chance of death (compared to injury) relative to other age groups. Likewise, younger riders need know that they are at increased risk of serious injury. And injuries are clearly on the rise in California. (According to our local police, that trend holds in Beverly Hills too.)

While the incidence of death is low across all age groups, though, the threat, local blogger Ted Rogers reminds us, is real: 28 cyclists have been killed on Southern California roads this year already. These SWITRS data begs our attention, but of course most cyclists don’t look at this data; they may feel that they know the risks and ride accordingly.

More worrisome is that drivers will never know unless they read a bike blog. The Auto Club of Southern California recently published Sharing The Road [pdf], a publication evidently targeted to cyclists. But instead of addressing motorist misconceptions about where it is legal to ride and under what conditions do riders have run of the lane, the Auto Club takes the easy route, asking only riders to share.  In the tips section, for example, cyclists get nearly twice as many as do motorists – perhaps intentionally reiterating to their constituency the Club’s motto: “We’re always with you.” Par for the course.

Whether we decide to drive, ride, or walk to our destination, it is probably our time behind-the-wheel and maybe from our last ride that informs a seat-of-the-pants assessment of the risks and rewards of cycling. It is not charts and tables but rather a feeling formed by how we’re treated by drivers and even our exposure to recent media reports that very likely (and unconsciously) determines our choices. But the data don’t lie.

Yet collisions findings were never mentioned when Beverly Hills conducted its Pilot program bike route selection. Shouldn’t the safety data have been brought into the planning process? When safety was finally broached in our Traffic & Parking Commission hearing, it was to only highlight the locations – not the details – of collisions in Beverly Hills but said nothing about the bigger picture.

Now, our commissioners are well-versed in the mobility challenges here in town. All are cognizant of the need for greater safety for cyclists. And all appear to be working for the greater good. But they simply didn’t have the data before them. Had they been provided with the big picture, they would have known that key city constituencies would benefit from safer streets. They would see that young folks and middle-aged riders are most at risk (for injury and death respectively), and that whatever the public grumbling, it is their responsibility to plan for safe, multiple modes of travel. It says so in our Bikeway Master Plan.

Why it Matters

Safety is arguably that single greatest perceptual hurdle that pro-bike advocates must overcome if we want to make cycling more attractive as a mobility choice. Given that bicycle commuting as a share of all commute trips hovers well below 1% nationally while other nations routinely push double digits, it is clear that we have our work cut out for us to change that.

To bend these trends in a positive direction, we need to understand the broader picture and the fine-grained data in order to work locally to make our roads safer. It’s up to us. When our commissioners viewed only the limited data provided to them, they could only view the small picture. So they suggested where bike improvements should not go . That reduced liability but of course it heaped risk onto cyclists. An upcoming post will look at Beverly Hills data in greater detail to assess the frequency of serious bike-involved collisions, and also to identify hotspots where collisions seem to occur with unfortunate regularity. We’ll then take this to the city to see if we can’t re-address our safety concerns in light of a bike route process that failed us.

We have to do the data crunching ourselves, DIY style. Thankfully the SWITRS data is pretty detailed and it is publicly accessible. There’s much there that advocates can work with. In that post we will suggest how you can access SWITRS for your area in order to leverage the data in your work with policymakers and police officials.

Parting Thought

You know, here in Beverly Hills our two transportation planners together take home more than a quarter-million bucks annually (not counting benefits). So why does it fall to an unpaid bike blogger to pull this data together? A freebie for the officials that can’t be bothered? Something’s wrong with this big picture.