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Bicycle riding is good for health, providing enjoyable exercise. It has its risks, though; hundreds of bicyclists die each year in the US, and hundreds of thousands make emergency room visits for bicycle-related injuries. In a contest between a bike and a car, the bike loses.

It’s difficult to say what the injury and fatality rates are per rider mile, since there are no good numbers on how many miles people ride each year. Most bicycle injuries don’t get into police records. What we can do is look at comparative rates among cyclists to see where the risk factors are.

Risk factors

Teenagers and adults over forty have the highest death rates. It’s likely that the first group suffers from recklessness and lack of experience, and the second group from weaker sight and hearing or decreased ability to recover from injuries.

Alcohol is a factor in a lot of bicycle accidents. In 2014, 21 percent of the cyclists who were killed had blood alcohol levels of 0.08% or higher. Impairment of psychomotor abilities has a bigger effect on cyclists than on motorists.

Fatality rates per million population vary significantly among states. Florida has the highest rate, while in Minnesota fatalities have declined.

The large majority of people killed in bicycle accidents are male. While the cause isn’t certain, it’s likely because more riders are male, especially on city streets where the danger is greater. The NHTSA reports that about two-thirds of bicycle fatalities occur in urban areas, where all land is considered either urban or rural. It’s plausible that cyclists are in more danger on city streets than country roads, but again the lack of solid numbers on usage makes it difficult to demonstrate this statistically.


The number of bicycles sold in the United States hasn’t significantly increased or decreased since the turn of the century, so the amount of riding probably hasn’t changed much. Total bicycle deaths haven’t changed much either. However, the average age of cyclists injured or killed has gradually gone up. In 2004 the average age of cyclists who died in accidents was 39; in 2013 it was 44. This suggests an increase in the age of the average rider.

Infrastructure for cyclists has slowly improved with the building of more bicycle paths and designation of bicycle lanes, which demonstrably improve safety, but this hasn’t translated into a significant decrease in national fatality statistics. Perhaps there aren’t enough yet to make a statistical difference, or perhaps too many of them are poorly designed.

The good news is that although the fatality and injury rates have stagnated lately, they’re significantly lower than the rates in the seventies and eighties.

Safety measures

Cyclists can take several measures to improve their safety. Helmets decrease the chance of serious head injury in an accident. A shiny helmet may also increase the cyclist’s visibility.

Bright-colored or fluorescent clothing also increases visibility, and safety along with it. Reflective clothing or accessories are especially helpful at night, when the difficulty of seeing riders significantly increases the risk. Cyclists should have lights when riding after dark. Both head and tail lights are best.

The most important factor, though, is safe and sensible riding. Following the traffic laws is part of this, but it’s not the whole story. Cyclists need to stay alert to the special risks they face. A parked car can become a danger when its door opens or it suddenly pulls out; cyclists shouldn’t ride too close to parked vehicles and should keep an eye on any occupied ones. Drivers of turning vehicles may not notice bicycles going straight ahead of them, or they may be convinced they can beat any mere two-wheeled vehicle. Large trucks and buses often have poor visibility on their right.

Riding against traffic is dangerous, because the rider is coming from a direction motorists don’t expect. On the other hand, hugging the right as tightly as possible isn’t the safest procedure. It can actually be safer to move slightly to the left at an intersection, to increase your visibility and make it clear you aren’t turning right. If the road is too narrow to ride safely to the right of traffic, join in the traffic lane and let motorists pass when it’s safe. In general, ride in a straight line rather than ducking in and out of parking spaces. Use hand signals.

Legal issues

If a car hits you while you’re riding on a bicycle, and you were riding legally and reasonably, you have a good chance of collecting damages. Treat it as you would a car accident; stay at the scene and file a police report. It will help your claim if the police cite the motorist for a violation.

Take pictures if you’ve got a phone or other camera on you. Exchange identification. If you’re injured, getting treatment is your first priority, but make sure you have enough information to report the event. The consolation is that getting medical treatment will strengthen your case.

If you were riding illegally or dangerously, the driver could claim contributory negligence on your part. You could even be liable if your negligence forced the driver to hit someone else. Making a clear record of what happened could help you to counter such claims.

Preserve the evidence. Don’t have your bicycle fixed until its condition has been entered as evidence. Keep your clothing in the condition it was at the time of the accident.

If you’re in the Twin Cities area and have been in a bicycle accident, please contact us to learn about your legal options.