11/12/10

Bike Commuter Safety

Bike Portland describes the newly released report from Oregon Health Sciences University (You can download it here) on the bicycle commuting injuries:

The study is titled, Bicycle Commuter Injury Prevention: It Is Time to Focus on the Environment. It was published in the November 2010 issue of The Journal of TRAUMA® Injury, Infection, and Critical Care. Here is the background:
Few data exist on the risk of injury while commuting to work or school by bicycle. The proportion of commuters choosing to travel by bike is increasing in the United States, and information on injury incidence and the influences of rider characteristics and environmental factors may suggest opportunities for prevention actions.
When they say "environmental factors" they mean the built environment or the quality of the bikeways and streets and facilities used by bike commuters.
And here are the conclusions:
Approximately 20% of bicycle commuters experienced a traumatic event and 5% required medical attention during 1 year of commuting. Traumatic events were not related to rider demographics, safety practices, or experience levels. These results imply that injury prevention should focus on improving the safety of the bicycle commuting environment.
Here's some interesting findings from the study itself:

Commuter characteristics and their association with traumatic events are summarized in Table 2. On univariate analysis, there were no statistical differences in gender, age, BMI, skill level, commuting history, prior traumatic event, or use of helmet, lights in the dark, reflective clothing, and mirrors between those commuters who experienced a traumatic event and those who did not.
When it comes to cycling injuries, there's no difference between an experienced rider and a newbie. I think that's a good, sobering reminder to those of us on the road every day and accustomed to our daily rides in. If it's not differences between the cyclists, it must be the road conditions:
Given that commuter characteristics were not found to be associated with the incidence of either traumatic or serious traumatic events, we next reviewed the roadway surface conditions and infrastructure involved in each event. As mentioned above, poor surface conditions were cited as a factor in 20% of both traumatic events and serious traumatic events. Portland has several programs and policies that allow cyclists to contact the city when cleaning or repairs or needed; this can be helpful with loose gravel. Steel plates are common during road repair; they cover dangerous potholes but are not a good substitution for thoughtful bicycle detours. Tracks on the road, although evidence of Portland’s commitment to expanding its public transportation network, continue to challenge cyclists, especially during right and left turns.
Several studies have addressed the role of infrastructure in traumatic and serious traumatic events.16–18 In both Toronto and Ottawa, major injuries, those requiring medical attention, were most likely to occur on a sidewalk, followed closely by multiuse paths.10 The North American survey also reported a much higher incidence of events on sidewalks.5 In contrast, in Portland, very few events, 10 traumatic events and no serious traumatic events, occurred on a sidewalk, despite the fact that 40% of commuters reported riding on a sidewalk during part of their commute. It is interesting to note that in Portland, the greatest numbers of both traumatic and serious traumatic events occurred on infrastructure, bike lanes/wide shoulders, and residential streets, with motorized vehicles. This pattern may be, in part, due to exposure, as a 2009 study of 166 regular cyclists in Portland found that a disproportionate amount of cycling occurs on streets with bike lanes.16 In an effort to improve cyclist safety, Portland has been using colored bicycle lanes for the past 10 years. A 2000 study found that the colored lanes increased the percentage of motorists slowing or stopping before reaching the area, increased the number of motorists who yielded to bicycles in the given area, and decreased the number of conflicts between motorists and cyclists.19
Obviously, since this is a report put together by those from the medical community (it's in the November issue of The Journal of TRAUMA), it's pretty light on the planning suggestions. Bike Portland thinks that this study can have a positive impact:

This study should be of great use to advocates pushing for a higher quality, more refined and comfortable bike network. It also struck me as something that has a lot to do with the idea of tolerance we shared a few months back. If you are trying to appeal to the much-ballyhooed "interested but concerned," a stressful riding environment might be just enough to keep them from giving bicycling a try.
I hope planners, engineers and electeds take note of this study and allocate more resources to improving the quality — not just the quantity — of our bikeways.

I'm not entirely convinced that studies like this will make too big of an impact- either on planners or on commuters or would-be commuters. I think that planners are more likely to react from actual political pressure, either from community leaders or regular bicyclists directly than from a study that shows the incidence of injury. And I think that this study won't do much to appeal to the "interested but concerned." Knowing that you're as likely to be injured as the guy in lycra who sped past you isn't exactly comfort when you learn from the same study that over the course of the year 20% of riders experience of traumatic event.

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