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Govs Highway Safety Assoc: You’re on Your Own

If all you read was the press release of a new report by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), “Bicyclist Safety,” you would be forgiven if your take-away was: More bicyclists are being killed on American roads but they’re mostly helmet-less drunks — and there aren’t enough deaths to make it a national issue anyway. 

The tone-deaf press release focuses on the share of fatalities of helmet-less riders and those with a high blood-alcohol level, without a single mention of speeding or driving behavior, and only a passing reference to Complete Streets. The press release ends with this gem of a comment from the GHSA Executive Director Jonathan Adkins: “Adkins noted that while bicyclist fatalities are a problem in some states, unlike many highway safety challenges, this is not necessarily a national issue.” He says this because there were “only” five fatalities in some states. If I told you there were no bicycle fatalities on the moon, would you say it was safe to ride there? Not without a helmet, I guess.

It is a shame, because the full report itself is a little better. A little. It at least acknowledges and recommends counter-measures that can make bicyclists safer. The GHSA report highlights steps that bicyclists can take to protect themselves, but there are some excellent additional suggestions in the report that were left out of the headlines and infographics, but shouldn’t be. For example, the report clearly states the importance of controlling motor vehicle speeds, designing and building Complete Streets, bicycle boulevards, and neighborhood “slow zones.” It calls for providing information on driving safely with bicyclists in drivers’ education classes and on written tests. These are good suggestions.  

The report should have dug deeper into the issue of speed, however. Speeding is not only a contributing factor in bicycling fatalities, but in all roadway fatalities. Not every road may have dedicated physical space for bicyclists, but we can give every local government the right to lower speeds on its roads to improve the safety of all road users. Traffic deaths are preventable. Getting to zero traffic fatalities requires slower vehicle speeds and a comprehensive approach to road safety.

Chart courtesy of Transportation Alternatives

While the GHSA ED says bicycling safety isn’t a national issue, we say it is. Safe streets for bicycling are safe streets. Period. Any transportation organization concerned with safety needs to make the bicycle their design vehicle. If you’ve made it safe for bicycling -– through speed control, attitudes, awareness, and infrastructure –- you’ve made it safe for driving, walking, and transit. Keeping bicycling safety in a larger transportation safety context is important. Asking bicyclists to protect themselves with reflective gear and helmets will not solve the larger problems.

This report, and the reporting on it, shows how far we still need to go to get our transportation decision-makers to take a comprehensive, integrated approach to road safety.  It is why we are supporting a Vision Zero framework that fits all of the pieces together.

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