A report released Monday by the Governors Highway Safety Association stated the number of bike fatalities in the U.S. increased 16 percent from 2010 to 2012.
Yet despite the uptick in cyclist deaths -- fatalities went from 621 in 2010 to 680 in 2011 and reached 722 in 2012, according to the report -- active transit advocates argue that in larger context, biking in the U.S. is actually getting safer in terms of fatalities as it becomes more and more popular.
As the cycling community blog Bike Portland notes, the report "[assesses] the risk of biking by tallying the number of times somebody died, rather than considering the probability that somebody would die."
The report and its author, Dr. Allan Williams, acknowledge the catch. Williams, a former chief scientist at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, told NPR on Monday that the main reason for the increase in cycling fatalities was simple: More people are biking.
The longstanding challenge to adding such context to numbers like the GHSA's fatality figures, however, is that statistics for cycling popularity -- or a universal agreement on how that's even defined -- don't really exist. As the New York Times noted in a 2013 report, such figures aren't uniformly documented at the state or national level. Neither are non-fatal injury or incident statistics.
Still, the general consensus among transit advocates and officials is that biking is increasingly popular. In an effort to illustrate the upward growth of bike usage, People for Bikes crunched data from National Household Travel Surveys from 1977 to 2009. The annual number of U.S. bike trips, it said, jumped from roughly 1.25 billion in 1977 to more than 3.75 billion in 2009.
If such a trend continued through 2012, it may follow that cycling is less fatal even as the number of deaths increased.
Cyclist fatality statistics weren't the only figures the GHSA report covered. Here are several more useful findings:
Victims of cycling fatalities are getting older.
In the '70s, it was kids who were most often dying in bike crashes. In the aughts, it's largely male adults.
Booze and bare heads are still extremely dangerous.
Alcohol and riding without a helmet "have been and continue to be major contributing factors in bicyclist deaths," the report said.
Hitting the bottle before riding a bike is always a bad idea. In 2012, more than 1 in 4 adult bicyclists killed were alcohol-impaired, according to the GHSA.
States want safe cycling -- but not all of them are willing to spend money on it.
The GHSA surveyed the state highway safety offices in California, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas, asking them “What do you think is necessary for furthering the protection of bicyclists, and what is your state doing in this regard?” and “Are you planning new programs or increased emphasis on bicyclist safety?”
While all 10 states confirmed they were giving cycling safety "considerable attention" given that cyclists overall account for roughly 2 percent of road deaths, at least one unidentified state said there were bigger fish to fry:
One state pointed out that the bicycle safety problem is “tiny” compared to alcohol, teen drivers, motorcycles, and other issues, and that there was “no justification for spending additional resources on a problem that is so small, relatively speaking.”
Even though the raw number of bike fatalities was up 16 percent in two years, it was way worse three decades ago.
The two-year increase highlighted in the GHSA report may look alarming, but the overall number of cyclist deaths has plummeted compared to its peak in 1975, the first year fatality data was compiled. That year, the annual number of cyclist deaths totaled 1,003.
The GHSA report had at least one conclusion likely to make cycling advocates cheer: