What’s Causing the Drop in Bike-on-Ped Injuries?

Well, it didn’t take long for our local media to mangle the Hunter College study measuring bike-on-ped injuries in New York state. Statewide hospital data compiled by professors Peter Tuckel and William Milczarik plainly show a drop in pedestrian injuries caused by cyclists between 2007 and 2010 — the same period when NYC doubled the size of its bike network. Yet the Times headline read “Study Finds Higher Number of Pedestrians Hurt by Bikes,” NY1 headlined its piece “More Pedestrians Being Hit By Bikes, Study Finds,” and the Post led its coverage like so: “Maybe they should replace those bike lanes with ambulance lanes.”

A more appropriate lede might have gone: “Maybe they should build those bike lanes faster.” Because the injury data suggests, if anything, that bike-on-ped injuries are declining as bike infrastructure expands and more New Yorkers take up cycling.

The study’s main contribution is to give a more accurate sense of how many pedestrians are injured by cyclists each year. To get a truly firm grip on the nature of the problem, it would also help to have more detailed information on the severity of the injuries. (The State DMV, for instance, breaks down motor vehicle-caused injuries into three different classes: serious, moderate, and minor.) But a key finding is that the number of these injuries was significantly lower in 2010 than in 2007 (927, down from 1097). Bike commuting into downtown Manhattan almost doubled in the same period.

Without access to the annual data that’s specific to New York City and its boroughs (the Hunter study only breaks out annual figures for statewide data), it’s hard to say with certainty that the city’s bike-on-ped injuries are falling. But given that 55 percent of the state’s injuries happen in NYC, it’s reasonable to assume that the same year-over-year drop is happening at the city level too.

When you study traffic and street safety issues, you’re bound to come across counterintuitive findings pretty often. Widening roads, for instance, makes traffic congestion worse. Designing streets to make drivers feel safe actually endangers them and everyone else around them. Cyclist injury rates fall as cycling rates rise.

We don’t have enough data to know for sure, but maybe the bike-on-ped injury rate in NYC will also fall as the cycling rate rises. Several factors could explain why:

  • The more cyclists are on the street, the more predictable their movements become to pedestrians.
  • Infrastructure that makes cyclists feel safe on the street decreases the likelihood that they’ll choose to bike on the sidewalk.
  • As more people feel comfortable cycling, the general pool of cyclists stops skewing toward young, male risk-takers. The more risk-averse people who take up cycling engage in fewer behaviors that pose potential harm to pedestrians.

So the Hunter study offers some promising avenues of inquiry for future research. While the papers use it to bash bike lanes, there’s no data that runs counter to the widely established finding that the safety of walking and biking rises in tandem as motor vehicle speeds decrease. Safe places for cyclists are safe places for pedestrians.

Graphic: Noah Kazis

  • Driver

    Just a thought.  If insurance is ever mandated for bicycle riders, we will probably see this number (of reported accidents) skyrocket as people try to collect a payday for any little incident.

    Something else I was wondering the other day.  Is it currently possible to buy bicycle liability insurance as an individual cyclist?  Does any company offer this and how much would it cost?

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Something else I was wondering the other day.  Is it currently possible to buy bicycle liability insurance as an individual cyclist?  Does any company offer this and how much would it cost?”
    Probably $400 for administration and profit, plus the cost of any expected claims.  But that’s if bikes were not included in no-fault.

    If the bikes were included in no-fault, the cost would be $400, plus the cost of any claims caused by cyclists, plus the cost of any injuries to the cyclist by drivers, no matter who was at fault. And that’s the whole scam.

    If there really was to be cyclist insurance, it would have to be government run and for cases of proved fault only, for cyclists striking other cyclists or pedestrians — not for cyclists struck by motor vehicles.  And for serious injuries — with hospital visits — or the rare death.  Perhaps some the state sales tax revenues of bicycle shops, and sales of bicycles at other retailers, could be dedicated to that purpose, along with cyclist education.

  • Kathy

    WNYC this morning also reported a “rise” in bike-on-ped” injuries. D/K if they offered a retraction.

  • the number of crashes per 1000 bicyclists would be useful stat to compare  rates year over year.. at least we should be able to do that in NYC. 

  • Ian Turner

    Driver: You can probably get is part of a general liability or umbrella policy.

  • Accident Victim

    Random thought: Peter Tuckel and William Milczarik concluded that bike-on-ped accidents must be higher than their study indicated, since some injuries would not require a hospital visit or would be treated by a private physician and not be captured by their research.  Many reporters have latched onto this as “proof” that menacing cyclists are a much bigger threat than any of us can reasonably know.

    But couldn’t the same be said about people injured by automobiles?  As a pedestrian, I was knocked back by a car that ran a red light – I jumped out of the way to avoid being killed, fell over and banged my elbow up pretty bad. Went to my doctor the next day to get checked out.  As a cyclist, I’ve been run off the road, resulting in injuries that weren’t severe enough to warrant a trip to the ER.  I’m sure many New Yorkers have similar stories, and their experiences wouldn’t be tallied among the 10,000 pedestrians injured by cars in NYC.

    Is it the media’s belief that cycling accidents are under reported, but statistics measuring injuries caused by reckless driving are accurate to a person?

  • Station44025

    Argh.  Once again proving that many (most?) journalists are unable to write about or interpret statistics, math, or research in an accurate way, contributing to the continued confusion of themselves and the public about many, many topics.  J-schools obviously need to focus much more rigorously on preparing their students to deal with numbers and science when they graduate, because the media constantly bungles stories that involve either of those things.  Math isn’t a specialty, it’s how we understand the real world.

    I read a story yesterday about this bicycle study somewhere that cited the same annual number of accidents nationally as in NYC.  I guess all bicycle accidents take place in NYC?  I re-read it four or five times before giving up.  Maybe it was just bad proofreading (also, apparently, not covered in J-school).

  • Station44025

    Argh.  Once again proving that many (most?) journalists are unable to write about or interpret statistics, math, or research in an accurate way, contributing to the continued confusion of themselves and the public about many, many topics.  J-schools obviously need to focus much more rigorously on preparing their students to deal with numbers and science when they graduate, because the media constantly bungles stories that involve either of those things.  Math isn’t a specialty, it’s how we understand the real world.

    I read a story yesterday about this bicycle study somewhere that cited the same annual number of accidents nationally as in NYC.  I guess all bicycle accidents take place in NYC?  I re-read it four or five times before giving up.  Maybe it was just bad proofreading (also, apparently, not covered in J-school).

  • Station44025

    Argh.  Once again proving that many (most?) journalists are unable to write about or interpret statistics, math, or research in an accurate way, contributing to the continued confusion of themselves and the public about many, many topics.  J-schools obviously need to focus much more rigorously on preparing their students to deal with numbers and science when they graduate, because the media constantly bungles stories that involve either of those things.  Math isn’t a specialty, it’s how we understand the real world.

    I read a story yesterday about this bicycle study somewhere that cited the same annual number of accidents nationally as in NYC.  I guess all bicycle accidents take place in NYC?  I re-read it four or five times before giving up.  Maybe it was just bad proofreading (also, apparently, not covered in J-school).

  • I can attest from personal experience that it is not easy or straightforward to shop for a liability policy for bicycles on the business level. Individuals may find it easier.

    I believe that this problem is at least partially responsible for the poor cycling behavior of the delivery fleet. Riders are treated as independent contractors (with their own personal bicycles) because the restaurants can’t afford to pay a liability claim. More enforcement and more widely available insurance would make it reasonable for restaurants to put their riders on payroll and cover them directly under their own insurance policies. This would align safe and courteous riding behavior with what the boss wants. All the “bicycle-friendly business” campaigns won’t do a thing until business owners actively take responsibility for the behavior of their delivery fleet riders.

  • In response to Driver, in TX it is impossible to get insurance as a cyclist without also owning a car or house or both (some companies will only insure you on your bike if you insure both your house and car through them). I have been trying to get my state rep to require insurance companies to sell uninsured motorist coverage to cyclists for 10 years now with not a budge in that direction.

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