John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.
The tumultuous urban environment seems to be driving up the dire consequences of wrecking, researchers say.
As more Americans are hopping on bikes, it’s no surprise that more cyclists are getting injured. In the U.S., there’s been a 120 percent bump since the late 1990s in hospital visits due to bike crashes. And more than 800 riders died in car-on-bike incidents in 2015, averaging out to about two fatal wrecks each day.
What is less evident, though, is that on a case-by-case basis the costs of these incidents are increasing. While an adult rider who suffered a serious (but nonfatal) crash in 1997 might expect it to cost roughly $52,495—including medical bills, missed work, and loss of quality of life—the inflation-adjusted price tag grew to $62,971 in 2005 and a whopping $77,308 in 2013.
That’s according to a new paper in Injury Prevention revealing that the total costs of bike injuries in the U.S. have risen an average of $789 million yearly since the late ‘90s, reaching a sky-high $24 billion in 2013.
“Our overall message is to remember that the health benefits of cycling certainly outweigh the potential drawbacks. Many, many people cycle every day injury-free,” says Thomas Gaither, a study coauthor and medical student at the University of California, San Francisco. “However, our hope is that by quantifying these costs it will help to spur discussion and policy surrounding infrastructure for safe cycling.”
What’s behind the worsening consequences of eating face? Age has something to do with it: The pool of cyclists in the U.S. is turning grayer by the year, with the number of miles traveled by bike annually by folks 45 and older increasing from 1.9 million in 2001 to 3.6 million in 2009, according to Gaither and his compatriots at the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, Maryland’s Pacific Institute for Research & Evaluation, and elsewhere.
In some medical circles, being over 39 is considered a risk factor for incurring a life-altering cycling injury. All the fun stuff that can happen to your noggin in a bike wreck, such as intraventricular bleeding and subdural hematomas, occurs more frequently in older populations. If you’re over 55, meanwhile, you have double the chances of dying when hit by a car compared to a younger person.
“Older patients not only require longer recovery periods,” says Gaither, “but they also are more susceptible to more-severe injuries and have more medical comorbidities, which drive hospital costs.”
Where you ride also influences the costs of wrecking, with urban environments seeming more prone to costly crashes. In the past, says Gaither, a lot of bike accidents arose from non-street incidents. But as people continue to flock to cities and pedal in high-traffic, often chaotic avenues, more are experiencing high-impact vehicle collisions requiring longer hospital stays. According to the study, costs stemming from crashes on streets and highways have risen about 0.8 percent every year since the late ‘90s.
“We found that along with increasing costs, crashes on urban streets have increased,” he says. “Cycling is becoming more popular in urban areas and may be a reason for the increased cost. Certainly, crashes in urban areas may be more severe as they are more likely to encounter motor vehicles.”
There is a bit of silver lining this grim research-wad, however. And that’s that injury costs per mile ridden in the U.S. have dropped from $2.85 in 2001 to $2.35 in 2009. That basically means that miles ridden are increasing faster than costs due to injuries, says Gaither.
“This is a bit of good news,” he says. “It definitely coincides with bicycle helmet laws in many states and with the general trend of helmet use in the U.S. We know that head injuries are extremely costly and this may be a reason for the slight decline.”