Who’s at Risk From Drunk Cyclists?

This morning City Room wrote up a study published in the journal Traffic Injury Prevention that examines the factors behind cyclist fatalities in New York City. Nearly all the data derives from a groundbreaking 2006 report on bike injuries and deaths [PDF], the joint effort of several city agencies that preceded a major expansion of New York’s bike network.

The journal article includes this new piece of information: Alcohol was detected in 18 of 84 autopsies performed on the deceased cyclists. Writes City Room:

Potentially, this could lead to an awareness campaign about drunken biking, akin to the now-familiar (and successful) anti-drunk driving campaigns that began in the 1980s
that featured slogans like “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk” and
“Don’t drink and drive, call for a ride,” as well as the idea of
“designated drivers.”

It’s always helpful to learn more about what causes traffic fatalities (although, as several City Room commenters point out, the methodology leaves something to be desired in this case). But does equating drinking and biking with drinking and driving properly portray the public safety issues at work here?

Drinking and biking puts cyclists at risk because impairment makes them more likely to be killed by a motorist. Drinking and driving puts everyone in the vehicle’s path at risk of being killed by that motorist. In 2007, nearly 13,000 people died in crashes involving drunk drivers on American roads. More than 4,300 of those killed were people other than the impaired perpetrator behind the wheel [PDF]. Meanwhile, how many people died at the hands of a drunk cyclist?

  • J-Uptown

    You make a valid point about the risk to others from drunk driving versus drunk biking, but the fact remains that biking while drunk puts you in serious danger.

    Some European cities have taxis with bike racks on them, so you can take your bike home easily. Luckily, the subway here allows bikes on at all times to be your “designated driver”. Certainly Bloomberg won’t object to bikes on the train at 2AM, largely because he’s never seen the inside of a subway at that time.

  • I agree that it is fatuous to equate them. But there is also the risk (admittedly not great) that a drunken cyclist could cause an accident involving cars. And also, I’m sure there is plenty of psychological damage to motorists who kill cyclists, even when it is not their fault.

    Drunk cycling is not equal to drunk driving, but a danger to more than just the cyclist.

  • Larry Littlefield

    At a bar up in Kingsbridge Bronx in the early 1980s, a bartender responded to my answer that I didn’t want another beer with this — “What’s a matter, you worried about drinking and walking?”

    In any event, drunk, cellphoning and texting drivers are also more and more likely to be uninsured:


    “Insurance regulators and safety activists are alarmed at what they describe as a stunning rise in the number of drivers who are cutting back or even dropping their auto insurance to save money during the recession.”

    “It’s been a shock,” said Chris Pringle, owner of All American Insurance Agency in Little Rock, Ark., who said up to 20 percent of his clients had dropped their policies or missed payments in recent months. “I thought we were somewhat in a recession-proof business, because (auto insurance is) required for everyone to have.”

  • Streetsman

    Agreed. Drunk cycling is not nearly AS dangerous to others, but certainly not to be disregarded. The study did show that 11 pedestrians were killed by cyclists, and we certainly don’t want to downplay the importance of being alert and cautious.

    Here’s my problem: 95% of cyclist fatalities occurred on streets without marked bicycle lanes, yet “environment” was only considered a factor in 5% of all the fatal crashes. I would argue that an environment that does not provide for the safe accommodation of bicycles has to be considered a contributing factor.

  • J. Mork

    “95% of cyclist fatalities occurred on streets without marked bicycle lanes”

    It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that 95% of all miles cycled took place outside of marked bicycle lanes. If it’s more than 95%, then we’ve proven that riding in bicycle lanes is more likely to lead to a fatality than riding outside of bicycles lanes.

  • J-Uptown

    That 95% number has to be changing rapidly. When I think about my daily biking, my route to work is at least 70% bike lanes or greenways, and I can get most places using bike lanes over 50% of the time. The data they looked at is from a while ago, and many of the lanes I use are pretty recent.

  • The linked PDF never establishes a definition of “alcohol involvement”. Does this study really focus on drunk cycling, i.e. having a blood alcohol content equivalent to the drunk driving standard, or does it include all dead cyclists with any detectable level of blood alcohol? Or does it use some third standard?

  • Greg Raisman

    Frankly, Ben, I find your question to be callous.

    The notion that the only harm done in these tragic events is to the person who is physically harmed does nothing but dehumanize the web of pain that comes in the aftermath.

    I’m guessing you’ve never had to interact with someone who has just been involved in a serious crash. But, the harm is striking and widespread.

    I may prefer that people choose to drive less. However, people don’t become evil or position themselves to just get what’s coming to them if they choose to drive. I’ll be surprised when I run into the first person who has never been in a car in their lifetime.

    One interesting psychological thing is that people who are in error in crashes do better then those who are not in error. If someone is drunk driving or speeding and have a crash, they are empowered to change their behavior and know it will reduce the likelihood of the event happening again.

    Those who are not at fault basically feel at the mercy of the universe. They were going along, operating in a reasonable way when someone does something that causes a crash. The impact of getting out of the car and seeing a maimed person in front of you has serious consequences.

    The result includes things like depression, job problems, financial problems, family problems, occasionally suicide. The post traumatic stress from these events is real and casts a wide net (family, friends, co-workers of all the crash participants).

    Then, it gets into the whole safety perception thing. Every time there’s a high profile crash, we loose ground in convincing people that it’s safe to get out of their cars. Which, of course, hurts our ability to achieve the safety in numbers that happens for all roadway users as more people walk and bicycle.

    To imply that choosing to ride a bicycle absolves us from responsibility towards others in our neighborhood or to others in our community at large is a bit too narrowly focused for my taste. We shouldn’t be that selfish.


  • “It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that 95% of all miles cycled took place outside of marked bicycle lanes.”

    That’s just the thing J. Mork: this is never an honest way to present statistics, even when (as is not the case here) the numbers themselves are completely unfishy. Whether it’s alcohol, helmets, whatever, the only relavant figure is a significant difference between the surviving group and the group killed in crashes, over some period of time. Just reporting percentages about the fallen tells you strictly nothing about the why. I don’t believe that any public health researcher is ignorant of this, but of course if people believe they know what’s best they will not let a little thing like a lack of evidence get in their way.

    When awareness crusaders can’t be bothered to sample a control group, I can’t be bothered to pay heed to their meaningless numbers and unfounded conjecture. But if they’re open to discovery rather than just supporting existing beliefs, they could try comparing conditions in our city to those with lower traffic fatality rates. This doesn’t require autopsy or any particular focus on death, morals, or equipment; it is a search for positive conditions that invisibly save lives every day.

  • Shemp
  • Evan

    Of those, I don’t suppose they bothered to look into whether or not they were licensed drivers (also), or perhaps people on “Dewey bikes” because their licenses were suspended. I’m just curious, not trying to start anything. I know some of the worst offenders in my ‘hood are the ones whose bikes you see parked in front of bars in the middle of the day. At least they are not behind the wheel!

    I’d be a hypocrite if I said I have never ridden drunk. Am I showing any better (or worse) judgment if I ride my bike somewhere where I know I’ll be drinking, when I could (but don’t) drive instead?

  • Greg —

    You wrote, “If someone is drunk driving or speeding and have a crash, they are empowered to change their behavior and know it will reduce the likelihood of the event happening again.”

    I have read much of the extensive literature on traffic crashes and have yet to come across any empirical support of that assertion. And I do know of at least one study statistically validating the opposite — drivers in fatal crashes do not subsequently reduce their crashing or infraction frequency.

    Please let us know whether (or not) you have any evidence to buttress your assertion. Thanks.

  • Greg Raisman

    Thanks for the question, Charles.

    I’ll be glad to dig it up. Will take a little time.

    However, just to clarify, I’m not referring to future likelihood of crashes there. I’m talking about the way that the circumstances of the crash impact the severity of the post traumatic stress.

    Interesting to hear that “drivers in fatal crashes do not subsequently reduce their crashing or infraction frequency.” Makes some sense. Seems like fodder for even more research (ah, the joys of dorkdom!). I wonder if the, let’s call it, the recidivism rate is different in different cities that approach traffic safety with different tool boxes.

    You have a copy of that study handy? Sounds like one worth checking out.

    Thanks for the interesting question.

  • I only skimmed the comments but I’m surprised no one asked or brought up that most drunk cyclists that get killed are in all likelihood alcoholics. They ride a bike because they lost their drivers licenses and/or lost their jobs due to their alcoholism and therefore the money to have and maintain a car.

    I monitor newspaper reports in New Jersey for pedestrian and bicyclist crashes and a fair number of the bike fatalities seem to be due to the cyclist riding drunk in the middle of the night.

    It’s still a tragedy all the same.

  • Pursuant

    I didn’t feel comfortable with the tone of the article since it marginalizes biking fatalities as self-inflicted tragedies. Would the headline, “Drunk ass bicycle riders responsible for their own deaths” be too harsh for Jenny 8?

  • Since when does “alcohol was detected” equal being drunk? There’s nothing wrong with biking home after a few drinks. Bike safely.

  • Andy B from Jersey
    I don’t know about New Jersey but here in NYC , where there are numerous impediments to car ownership, substantially better public transportation, and a growing bicycling infrastructure, bikes aren’t a last resort for those who have had their licenses revoked for DUI.

    On Friday and Saturday nights when the weather is warm it’s not unusual to see bikes outside open air bars and restaurants where alcohol is served – even along the Westside Greenway. Next month, plenty of cyclists will stop by the bars in Dumbo during the Five Boro Bike Tour. Surely you’re not suggesting all of these people are alcoholics?

    Not only does this study fail to mention how much alcohol was detected in these cyclists but it also fails to mention how much alcohol is present, at any time, in the average New Yorker. Without any real world context these numbers are meaningless.

  • Billy B.

    Why is everybody ignoring the item in the report that 97% of the cyclists killed were NOT wearing helmets?

    Motorcyclist must wear helmets, by law.

    Instead of shifting the blame, perhaps cyclists should examine their own dangerous behavior.

  • J. Mork

    This statistic is meaningless unless you can tell me what percentage of all cyclists don’t wear a helmet.

    If 97% of all cyclists don’t wear a helment, then a helmet has been shown to have no effect.

    (I don’t know the real number. I also don’t believe the 97% number you’re citing in the report.)

    I just performed my own study by looking out the window of my midtown office building. Of the first 10 cyclist I observed, 90% were not wearing helmets.

    (And in case you are wondering, I always wear my helmet, but mostly to keep people who are bad at statistics off my back and not because I truly believe it will help if I get run over by a truck.)

  • Greg —

    It took awhile — sorry — but here are two literature citations for the fact that killer-drivers don’t reform:

    Baker’s paper from April 1974:
    Fatal Pedestrian Collisions: Driver Negligence

    Amy Lightstone, 1997:
    Relationship between driver’s record and automobile versus child pedestrian collisions.

    Pls let me know that you got this. Thanks.

    — Charles

  • Alex

    Let me get this straight:

    Your answer to a study that points the danger of biking riding while drunk is to redirect the subject to drunk driving?

    Most of us are already aware of the dangers of driving under the influence. It’s a separate topic which should not be used as a way to spin the information presented in this report. I am a regular bike rider, but I continually find myself turned off by the righteousness of some of the fellow bike riders. The opinion from this article definitely falls into this vein.

  • David Margolis

    It’s time to license bicycles and adult riders. It’s the only way to make sharing the road work. This post ignores the danger created when motorists swerve or brake suddenly to avoid a reckless cyclist, whether the person is stoned, drunk, stupid or crazy. Enough already, license cycling and people will behave more responsibly.

  • qrt145

    It’s time to license shoes and adult pedestrians. It’s the only way to make sharing the road work. This post ignores the danger created when motorists swerve or brake suddenly to avoid a reckless pedestrian, whether the person is stoned, drunk, stupid or crazy. Enough already, license walking and people will behave more responsibly.


  • Joe R.

    Enough already, license cycling and people will behave more responsibly.

    Because licensing has worked out so well for motor vehicles. A piece of paper doesn’t replace common sense or skills. Many motorists lack both. So do some cyclists, but at least when they do they usually only hurt themselves.

  • meghan
  • meghan

    drive sober or get pulled over! watch video below


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