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Crash Data: Cycling Fatalities Reach 46-Year High

2021 was the deadliest year for cyclists in almost five decades, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) annual traffic fatalities report released earlier this year

With rising popularity during the pandemic, more people ditched their cars than ever before, but unfortunately this came with an increase in bicycle accident fatalities in some areas of the country – including in California. In 2021, of the nearly 1,000 bicycle fatalities, more than 20% were hit and run incidents. 125 of them occurred in California, second only to Florida where nearly 200 fatal accidents happened over the course of a year.

The new numbers have cycling advocates in San Francisco and beyond calling for more safety measures, better infrastructure, and increased awareness from other road users. Cycling is a good way to travel, save cash, help the planet, and stay fit, but it has dangers too. If you’re in an accident while cycling, reach out to the bicycle lawyers at Bay Area Bicycle Law for a free consultation to see how our experts can make sure you get proper compensation.

National statistics

Nearly 43,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes across the U.S. in 2021, a 10% increase over the previous year. For cyclists, there was a national increase in deaths of about 2%, a total of 18 more fatalities, while injuries increased by about 7%, or 2,729 more injuries than were reported in 2020.

Crashes are largely considered underreported by many agencies. Cyclists can be hesitant to call in a hit and run accident, especially if immediate medical attention isn’t required and the driver has already left the scene of the accident. While frustrating, it can be helpful to local authorities and urban planning departments to know where accidents occur so that they can better address problem areas.

Pedestrian and motorcycle deaths have increased in the last 30 years, but deaths of cyclists have remained largely constant, according to NHTSA. Even so, risk can differ greatly depending on location.

In urban areas, cyclist deaths have increased significantly – 62% since 2012. At the same time they’ve decreased by about one-third in rural areas.

California statistics

Closer to home, it becomes a lot clearer where there remains gaps in safety measures for cyclists.

In 2021, of the nearly 1,000 bicycle fatalities, more than 20% were hit and run incidents. 125 of them occurred in California, second only to Florida where nearly 200 fatal accidents happened over the course of a year.

The League of American Bicyclists reported that cycling crashes were down 58% from 2012-16 averages, but from 2017 to 2021 there were about 1.4 crashes per 1 million Bay Area residents.

“The single most effective thing the City can do to increase safety is build protected bike lanes and protected intersections,” Luke Bornheimer, a sustainable transportation advocate, told Axios San Francisco about the new data. “It’s also the most cost effective thing the City can do and will increase the number of people riding bikes for transportation (sustainable mode shift/share).”

The city has a goal to eliminate roadway deaths by 2024, and with under a year to go until that deadline is up, advocates say there’s still much to be done to prevent cyclists from avoiding fatal accidents on local streets.

To the south, in Los Angeles, cyclist deaths remain extremely worrisome. In 2022, 26 cyclist deaths were attributed to high speeds, roadways with multiple lanes in each direction, a lack of adequate bicycle facilities, and time of day.

“Despite commitments from the county and several city governments to achieve a future with zero traffic fatalities or serious injuries, Los Angeles still has one of the highest collision death rates nationally,” local advocacy group BikeLA wrote in an annual report. “Stemming from a lack of focus on active transportation and ongoing neglect of disadvantaged communities, it is estimated that $80 million in new investments annually are needed to achieve a 20% reduction in fatal crashes. Yet, only $50.6 million was committed last fiscal year.”

In the Bay Area, bicycle coalitions continue to push for safer streets. Bike infrastructure projects have been underway as city officials vow to improve the commuting experience for bicycle riders.

Improving safety for everybody

There’s a lot that can be done to improve safety for cyclists beyond adding bike lanes – although that’s crucial, too.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has recognized the following as mechanisms for safer roads:

  • Slower speeds
  • Adding proper nighttime lighting
  • Reducing points of conflict by adding medians and consolidating driveways
  • Increase stop and yield sign visibility or adding an advance stop line

In the next year, Californians may see more state legislation addressing cyclist safety. Legislator Tasha Boernor said over the summer she is working on a robust comprehensive bike and e-bike safety bill, expected to be introduced in 2024.

Capitol watchers anticipate that legislative package will include a twice-vetoed bill allowing cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs at an all-way stop intersection on roads with two or fewer lanes – which has now been adopted by more than a dozen states across the country.