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California tops all other states in cyclist fatalities

California had more bicycle accident fatalities than any other state from 2010 to 2012. Worse, perhaps, is the fact that the number of deaths rose by 23 percent during that period, while national totals increased just 16 percent. California also outpaces the nation when it comes to how many traffic deaths involve bikers: Nationwide, 2 percent of all traffic deaths are cyclists, but in California it was 4 percent.

A couple of things contribute to our poor record, according to a report published recently by the Governors Highway Safety Association. California is home to a lot of people, and the state boasts several densely populated urban areas. We have a lot of bike commuters, but heavy traffic on city streets makes sharing the road all the more challenging for both bicycles and motor vehicles.

Bicycling has evolved over the past 40 years, it seems, changing from a child-centered recreational activity to an adult-centered mode of transportation. In 1975, the report notes, just 21 percent of biking fatalities were adults age 20 and up. Now, 84 percent are adults. Of those adults, nearly three-quarters were men.

Where bikers are dying has changed as well. In 1975, it was an even split between urban and non-urban, but in 2012, urban areas reported 69 percent of the fatalities.

How do we reverse the trends? No state requires adult bikers to wear helmets, but at least two-thirds of the cyclists who died in 2012 were not wearing helmets. And riding while intoxicated is not much safer than driving while intoxicated: 28 percent of cyclists (16 and older) killed in 2012 registered blood alcohol levels of 0.8 percent, compared with 33 percent of motor vehicle drivers.

Cyclist behavior is not the only thing to worry about. There are infrastructure concerns as well. Roads in many areas are not bike- or pedestrian-friendly. Adding dedicated bike lanes may make conditions worse for both bikers and drivers in some parts of the state. An alternative is turning roads parallel to major urban streets into bike boulevards. Another suggestion is to add bike-only traffic signals that would give bikers a head start at green lights.

All of this costs money, though — even passing a helmet law would cost money. Without funding, lowering California’s bike accident fatalities rests in the hands of bikers and drivers.

Source: Los Angeles Times, “Bicycle traffic deaths soar; California leads nation,” Jerry Hirsch, Oct. 27, 2014

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