Digging in: How Many Crashes Are Due to “Bicycle Factors?”

Bike-Helmet_1.jpgCharles Komanoff at Right of Way has churned out an initial analysis of the City's bicycle injury and fatality study. Here is his take:

New York City just released its first-ever study of bicycle injuries and fatalities. There's good news and bad news. The good news is that four City agencies (health, transportation, parks and police) admitted, finally, that bicycling is good for New York City, and pledged to expand the City's cycling infrastructure. The study also didn't indulge in the NYPD's habitual victim-blaming in cycling fatalities, a significant though unacknowledged shift.

Going forward, the involvement of the Dept. of Health may help move the discussion from harping on the dangers of cycling to highlighting its health benefits.

But here's the bad news: The study has many methodological flaws and misleading findings, leading it to over-emphasize helmets and bike lanes and neglect the need for universal street safety. And the study completely neglects the fact that most fatal crashes are caused by aggressive, self-entitled drivers, and laissez-faire policing that allows motorists to literally get away with murder.

The study attributes 42% of all fatal bike-vehicle crashes to "bicycle factors," 20% to "vehicle factors" (i.e., drivers), and 36% jointly to both cyclists and drivers (another 2-3% of cases couldn't be coded). That's an improvement from the NYPD's made-up "statistic" that 75-80% of biking fatalities are solely the cyclists' fault. But it's still deeply misleading. I know because I was given access to the NYPD's cause-coding for three of the years studied (1996-98).

I headed up the team at Right Of Way that analyzed 1995-98 fatal bike crashes and wrote RoW's Only Good Cyclist Report (PDF file) in 2000. My review of the NYPD's crash analysis found them rife with errors. In one case, a driver ran a red light and struck and killed a cyclist proceeding lawfully through an intersection; The NYPD gave the cause as "Bike Thru Red Traffic Signal Light And Struck By Vehicle" and actually assigned a Bike Factor of "Traffic Control Disregarded." Similarly: a cyclist was crushed when a Mack truck made a right turn directly into his path. NYPD said, "Unsafe Bike Operator Turned Into Vehicle And Was Struck By Turning Vehicle" and assigned a Bike Factor of "Unsafe Lane Changing," even though it was the truck that changed lanes unsafely and turned into the cyclist, who had been traveling straight with the right of way.

I found that only 20% of the fatal bike-vehicle crashes could be attributed to "bicycle factors" (vs. the City's 42%), while 44% were the exclusive result of "vehicle factors" (vs. the City's 20%). The remaining 36% were the fault of both cyclists and drivers (the same as the City's tally). In effect, my analysis turned the City's cause factors upside down.

Diagnosis dictates treatment. If driver aggression or inattention is killing cyclists, the answer is to change that behavior. To say the very least, the study missed a priceless opportunity to tell it like it is.