Drunk, Helmetless California Bicyclists Help State Top National Death List

Friday, October 31, 2014
(photo: Arenamontanous on Flickr)

More bicyclists die from motor vehicle encounters in California than any other state.

The “Bicyclist Safety” (pdf) report this month from the Governors Highway Safety Association found that California had the highest number of bicycle fatalities between 2010 and 2012, which is perhaps not surprising considering it is the most populous state. But even adjusted for population, California had the second-highest death rate behind Florida.

Fatalities nationwide rose 16%, from 621 in 2010 to 722 in 2012, while in California they rose 23%, from 100 to 123. Kansas had the highest percentage increase, 600%, but that represented just an increase from 1 to 7 deaths. Among the bigger states, Florida’s 44.6% increase (from 83 to 120) stands out.

Fifty-four percent of all bicyclist deaths from motor vehicle encounters occurred in just six states―California, Florida, Illinois, New York, Michigan, and Texas. As deaths increased, the nature of who was dying changed.

Adults replaced kids as the most likely victims. Only 21% of dead bicyclists in 1975 were 20 or older. In 2012, 84% were. Victims are consistently male, between 82% and 88% from 1975-2012. Seventy-four percent of dead bicyclists in 2012 were adult males.

There was also a geographic shift. Urban areas accounted for 69% of deaths in 2012, compared to 50% in 1975.

The report’s authors expressed surprise that such a healthful activity, whose growing popularity contributed somewhat to the increased mortality, was attracting drinkers. “Despite the association of biking with healthy lifestyles and environmental benefits, a surprisingly large number of fatally injured bicyclists have blood alcohol concentrations [BOC] of 0.08% or higher,” the report said.     

Twenty-eight percent of those 16 and older exceeded that legal limit in 2012, which only looks good when you compare it to the 33% of dead passenger-vehicle drivers with high BOCs. The expressed surprise is further surprising because dead bicyclists have consistently been drinking like that since 1982, according to the report.

The report does not make a direct correlation between drunk bicyclists and the proclivity for riding without a helmet. A national survey of adult U.S. bicyclists in 2012 found that 46% said they never wore a helmet. The report cited data that 65% of dead bicyclists weren’t wearing helmets, compared to 17% who were. Helmet use by the others was unknown. Not every state has a helmet law; California requires them for riders 18 and younger.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California Is No. 1 in Bicyclist Death (by Dennis Romero, LA Weekly)

Bicycle Traffic Deaths Soar; California Leads Nation (by Jerry Hirsch, Los Angeles Times)

California Ranks No. 1 in Bike Deaths (by Erin Sherbert, SF Weekly)

Bicyclist Safety (Governors Highway Safety Association) (pdf)

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