This is the second in a three-part series examining the safety of vulnerable road users, as new federal data show a rise in traffic deaths among motorcyclists, bicyclists, and pedestrians last year. Read the first post.
I love nearly everything about bicycles, from riding around Virginia to creating art for the NTSB office with old parts. I say “nearly” everything because U.S. roads are far too dangerous for bicyclists — and it’s getting worse.
On World Bicycle Day, I’m calling on every road user to help change the conversation.
Outdated Thinking is Deadly
Bicycles have been around for two centuries. But that’s no excuse for our safety approach to be stuck in the past, as it currently is.
We have to stop telling bicyclists not to get injured. We have to let go of the idea that educating bike riders will solve the problem. This type of thinking is too narrow to stem the public health crisis on our roads — and clinging to it is proving to be deadly.
Of course, we implore all road users to make safe choices to protect themselves and others. But we’re missing the bigger picture when we only focus on individuals’ actions. It’s certainly not how we get to our goal of zero traffic deaths!
Instead, we should be talking about how the entire system is failing to protect bicyclists and other vulnerable road users, such as pedestrians and motorcyclists. This means asking new questions such as the following:
- Are vehicles equipped with technology to prevent crashes with bicyclists?
- Are drivers traveling at speeds that would make it unlikely for a bicyclist to survive a crash?
- Is the road itself designed to prevent crashes and protect bicyclists?
- If a crash does occur, how effective was the emergency response in its goal of saving lives and treating injuries?
These questions help us “zoom out” and see that we can’t solve our road safety crisis by focusing solely on individual road users. We also have to consider safe vehicles, safe speeds, safe roads, and post-crash care. That’s why Protect Vulnerable Road Users through a Safe System Approach is on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements.
In a truly Safe System, the safety burden is shared by all, from individual road users to traffic safety and highway engineers, regulators, vehicle manufacturers, and more. Absolutely everyone is responsible for preventing crashes.
Because even one death is one too many.
Tragically, the stakes have never been higher. According to data released last month by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 985 cyclists died on our roads last year — a 5% increase over 2020 levels. Combined with the 9% increase in motorcycle deaths and the 13% jump in pedestrian deaths, you can see how dire the situation is for vulnerable road users.
We have to do better. And that means considering all components of a Safe System. The best place to start is with the implementation of NTSB safety recommendations.
Here are just some of the ways we could make streets safe for all road users:
- Invest in bike- and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, like separated bike lanes and safety treatments at intersections. The recent infrastructure law presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make such lifesaving investments.
- Reduce speeds, especially in areas where there are a lot of vulnerable road users, like bicyclists. This can be accomplished through infrastructure improvements, like road diets; granting local jurisdictions the authority to set safe speeds for their own community and implement speed safety camera programs; and requiring auto manufacturers to install advanced speed-limiting technology on vehicles.
- Require in-vehicle technologies, such as automatic emergency braking, that can help prevent crashes before they occur — and not just crashes with other cars and trucks, but with bicyclists, pedestrians, and motorcyclists as well.
- Require large vehicles to be equipped with visibility-enhancement systems to better detect cyclists and pedestrians in their blind spots.
- Prevent impaired driving, which leads to one in four traffic fatalities. NHTSA should require vehicles to come equipped with technology that will detect and prevent drunk driving. States should lower the per se blood alcohol content (BAC) to .05, an action only Utah has taken (with proven success!). States should also implement laws requiring all drivers convicted of alcohol-impaired driving to use an interlock device.
- Require front, side, and rear underride guards on newly manufactured trucks to protect cyclists and pedestrians from going beneath large trucks.
- Collect and analyze data, including hospital data, on the level of bicycling activity, crashes, and injuries. State and local leaders should use this data to design countermeasures and evaluate outcomes to measure effectiveness. How do you know if a project or program is successful if you aren’t tracking progress?
My Next Project — And the Nation’s
My next bike project has already begun. I’m restoring an old Sears Spaceliner that I picked up at my local thrift shop. And I’m planning a few rides with the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.
I’m also using World Bicycle Day as an opportunity to assign you a project of your own: Join NTSB in changing the bike safety conversation. Ask new questions. Stop putting the entire safety burden on bicyclists. Embrace the Safe System approach.
The lives of vulnerable road users depend on it.