Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
A new study reveals that a high rate of fatal accidents involve cyclists biking while intoxicated.
The numbers from the latest study on cycling and safety are alarming, no doubt. According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, the number of cyclists killed in crashes with motor vehicles climbed 16 percent between 2010 and 2012. So alarming, in fact, that Streetsblog pulled out both Y axes to deflate the claim that cycling is dangerous.
Risk, according to fatality data put out by the U.S. Department of Transportation, is far lower today than at any point in the last three decades. Although the number of fatal accidents has increased, the number of cyclist commuters has absolutely surged. In part, that's a function of new investments in infrastructure and innovation, which has made cycling more appealing to more Americans in only a short time. And that means that even though the absolute number of deaths has risen, the relative risk of every ride is actually much lower.
Case closed. Miller time, right? Not exactly. Another part of the report is slightly more worrisome, and not just a trick of the numbers. The same Governors Highway Safety Association study finds that 88 percent of the victims of fatal cycling accidents in 2012 were men. Worse still, 28 percent of all fatal-accident victims in 2012 had a BAC of more than 0.08 percent. The risk question aside, is bro culture claiming cyclists' lives?
Up front, let's be clear about something. The behavior of cycling victims in accidents with motor vehicles is almost never the cause of accidents. The number-one contributor to traffic fatalities in New York today is motorist speed. So when the League of American Cyclists condemns the Governors Highway Safety Association report as victim-blaming cyclists ("helmet-less drunks"), that's why: Even though cycling is more popular today, the dominant narrative still holds that it's cyclists getting themselves killed in accidents with automobiles.
The way to reduce traffic fatalities—of all kinds—is to slow down drivers, just as Mayor Bill de Blasio has done in New York by reducing the city's speed limit to 25 mph. Achieving a Vision Zero world of no traffic fatalities also means building out cycling infrastructure to go with public transit.
Yet there are things that cyclists could do to curb the deadliness of accidents. Cycling advocates sometimes suffer from cataracts when it comes to these things, especially regarding helmet laws, and I understand why. When the Governors Highway Safety Association says that "[l]ack of helmet use is a major contributing factor in fatalities," it's a call for regulations on cyclists and a shift of the burden of road safety onto them. While it may be partly true that helmets can affect the deadliness of an accident, they can't prevent them.
And when it comes in a report that comes with scary speeding cyclist graphics (there's one image that shows a beer bottle merging with a cyclist's head, for example), then it reads as if the full weight of the responsibility for fatal accidents is falling on the victims. That's not fair, and it's not useful. The way to make cycling safer is to build cycling infrastructure and slow the speed of drivers. A bill being considered in Washington, D.C., that will give more rights to cyclists and end the doctrine of contributory negligence is another tool that promotes safety (by dividing up liability costs of accidents more equitably, if not the consequences). Still, helmets still sometimes mean the difference between bad accidents and fatal ones.
More to the point, though: People aren't just cyclists or motorists. They're rarely one or the other exclusively. Especially in cities today, car-sharing options turn people who don't own cars into occasional drivers. It's in cities that the majority of fatal crashes involving cyclists occur (69 percent, according to the study). And it's in cities that people—not cyclists or drivers, but people—continue to regularly make bad decisions regarding alcohol and transportation.
Avoiding BUIs can't save cyclists from accidents. It seems clear that only reducing vehicle speed can do that. But insisting that no one operates any sort of transportation after drinking confirms a culture in which people don't drink and cycle (which they probably shouldn't do) and also don't drink and drive (which they really shouldn't do).
More men are cyclists than women, but even factoring for that, they're overrepresented in cyclist traffic fatalities. And when 1 in 4 cyclists who were killed in 2012 were alcohol impaired—some of them severely so—then yes, there is a cultural problem there that needs to be addressed. Even if it comes at the cost of cyclists making concessions to people who too often blame them totally for accidents that only drivers can actually prevent. Some drunk cyclists are also drunk drivers. There's not a good argument for tolerating either.