Bike Safety: Still an illusive City goal

Has bicycle riding become safer in New York City? On July 28, 2011 the New York City Department of Transportation answered “Yes” by presenting statistics that showed that bike riding was 72 percent safer in 2010 than it was 2001. How good are DOT’s statistics?

Despite significant efforts, the absolute number of bicyclist fatalities and severe injuries has hardly moved. In 2000 there were 18 fatalities and 351 severe injuries. In 2010 there was no change: 19 fatalities and 361 severe injuries. During the year 2010 New York City experienced the decade’s second highest total of fatalities and severe injuries. And there was a worse statistic for bike advocates; while there were only 12 fatalities in 2009, fatalities jumped to 19 in 2010. 

DOT relied on its “Cycling Safety Indicator” to normalize fatality and severe injury data against the number of bicycle riders entering Manhattan’s midtown. DOT argues that, as the number of bike commuters has grown by a factor of three, the “index” of bike safety improved by a similar factor, hence DOT’s claim of a 72 percent improvement.

Bicycle safety is a goal devoutly to be sought, and DOT’s statistics are suggestive that bike riding may have become somewhat safer. The absolute numbers of fatalities and severe injuries however, have not changed, and the stubborn consistency of those numbers suggests that there has been less improvement than DOT might like. Bike riding in dense city traffic has its inherent dangers that seemingly have not been significantly reduced.

The growing expanse of bike lanes has raised other safety issues, particularly the potential for confrontation between pedestrians and bikes. Here DOT has the correct idea in its “Don’t Be a Jerk” campaign, exactly the right epithet for the signal-running, wrong-way-riding, speeding bike rider. It may be politic for DOT to publicize its safety statistics, but it would probably have a greater safety impact if DOT and the police would compel bike riders to honor traffic laws. DOT might temper its boosting of biking with a more hard–headed program that compelled bike riders to observe traffic rules aimed at safety for all, including bike riders.

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