A Long and Winding Road: NTSB Issues Analysis Today on Bicycle Safety — 47 Years Since Last One.

It was a mess.

Police cars parked in all directions. Ambulances rushed over. Connecticut Avenue, a major thoroughfare heading into and out of Washington DC from Montgomery County MD, was cordoned off. A bicyclist was pinned against a utility pole as a pickup truck and two cars crashed, The Washington Post reported.

The bicyclist wasn’t even on the road at the time of the collision, according to media reports. The man was standing with his bike on the sidewalk.

Bicyclists don’t have to be moving on the road to get hit. Several years ago, my son was riding with other bicyclists cross country on a gleeful trip. The joy cascaded into horror as one of the young riders in a separate group, a 24-year old woman, was killed when struck by a pick-up truck while she was changing a flat tire on the side of a road. That tragedy happened on a rural byway in Kentucky. Yet wading through traffic in urban areas is one of the biggest challenges for bicyclists, and some roads don’t seem to be a good fit no matter how enthusiastic or safety conscious the biker.  In the Connecticut Avenue crash, a bicyclist is recovering from injuries and luckily there were no fatalities.

That’s not always the case. Bicycle accidents involving motor vehicles are increasingly leading to fatalities.  They come against the backdrop of the tremendous growth of biking, whether it for fun, exercise or commuting to work. It’s not just the nine-year-old steering his or her bike on a sidewalk going to a friend’s house. The bicyclist is more likely a middle-aged person navigating a street.

While state legislators scheduled a meeting today to look at the Connecticut Avenue crash and figure out the problems of the biking accident and others along that stretch of road, the National Transportation Safety Board will be meeting a few miles away this morning in Washington DC to consider findings and recommendations of a major report about bicycle safety, crashes with motor vehicles and what can be done about it.

Usually you think of NTSB and airplane accidents. It’s true. But the agency covers bicycle and pedestrian safety too. The bicycle report is the first NTSB analysis of bicyclist safety in 47 years, and none too late, with the board mentioning the “growing use of bicycles as a means of transportation and resulting safety issues.” It will be releasing findings and recommendations in its “Safety Research Report: Bicyclist Safety U.S. Roadways: Crash Risks and Counter Measures.” The board says it will “examine the prevalence and the risk factors of bicycle crashes involving motor vehicles and assessing the most applicable countermeasures.”

NTSB officials declined to specifically identify what will be discussed in the report, but Dr. Ivan Cheung, a lead investigator, and Dr. Jana Price noted generally the board will focus on a wide-range of issues, ranging from alcohol use to speed among motorists, helmet use among bicyclists, traffic regulations,road engineering improvements – adjusting traffic signals or building islands for exclusive bicycle or pedestrian lanes, or new sidewalk overpasses and underpasses, and technological changes such as collision avoidance systems that are becoming more of a mainstream in new vehicles.

In its last report – in 1972 — the board said the majority of deaths and injuries were among children 5 to 14 years old, surely, a different world of bicycling from today, where much older people frequent the bike lanes.

In 2018, while overall traffic fatalities were down, more pedestrians and bicyclists were killed on U.S. roads last year, accounting for nearly 20 percent of all traffic deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, The Washington Post said.

According to the NHTSA’s Fatal Analysis Report System data, 6,283 pedestrians and 857 people on bikes or similar nonmotorized vehicles were killed in 2018, an increase of 3.4 percent and 6.3 percent respectively, mostly in urban areas, the paper reported.

Other figures in recent years foreshadowed growing problems.  In 2017, 783 bicyclists, considered “vulnerable road users as they are more vulnerable to injury or death in the event of a crash” died as a result of crashes with motor vehicles, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration reported.

“Safety is a growing concern. Although bicyclists represent only about 2 percent of road fatalities, bicyclist deaths have increased 25 percent since reaching their lowest point in 2010,” according to the

Insurance Institute of Highway Safety.

“Crash avoidance features and other vehicle improvements may also make pedestrians and bicyclists safer,” according to the IIHS. “Modifying the front structures of vehicles may reduce the severity of pedestrian injuries. Regulators in Europe and elsewhere have been encouraging pedestrian protection in vehicle design through their vehicle testing programs.”

It’s not always easy, whatever changes are made. the IIHS adds: “Bike lanes separated from the roadway by physical barriers make cyclists feel safer and encourage more people to ride, but IIHS says protected bike lanes vary in terms of injury risk.”

For bicyclists there are mostly two types of crashes: falls or, the most serious, collision with cars. And the NTSB has a breakdown of when they most likely occur (between 6 p.m. 9 pm.) and of those who die on a bike – males were eight times as likely as females. Among a majority of bicyclists killed in crashes, head injuries are the most serious, but helmet use can drastically reduce them.

The NTSB says: “A large percentage of crashes can be avoided if motorists and cyclists follow the rules of the road and watch out for each other,” the board says.

It seems like a no-brainer.

Many complicated issues converge, however.

In 2016, a pickup truck driver plowed into nine cyclists  in Michigan who were properly riding single file along a paved road shoulder. Five were killed.

For the bicyclists, an NTSB official said: They wore reflective material, had reflectors, flashers, helmets high visibility clothing. “They were doing everything right, nevertheless they were all struck and killed or injured by a driver who was impaired by a variety of substances,” said T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, an NTSB member.

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