California Walks tweeted an LA Times articles entitled Highway deaths at lowest level since 1949; bike, truck fatalities rise. The misinformation and misunderstanding in the article includes:
The article misses that the Traffic Safety Fact: 2011 Motor Vehicle Crashes: Overview (TSF), linked from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) press release, also shows that the injury rate per vehicle mile traveled (VMT) has been flat for three years. What does this mean? It probably means that the number of crashes has not declined, just the likelihood of fatality in a crash. The rate per VMT is the only useful measure of traffic safety. Fatality counts and injury counts are a mis-measure because they are affected by the rate of driving and a number of other factors, rather than the safety of driving.
The TSF provides counts of pedestrian fatalities, up 3%, and bicyclists (the NHTSA uses the obscure term pedalcyclists), up 8.7%. To go with the counting game, this is an increase of 130 dead pedestrians and 54 dead bicyclists in just one year. No statistics are presented on the fatality rate per bicycle mile traveled. Why? I believe that it is because NHTSA is too lazy or too disinterested to compile information on bicycle miles traveled. Though pedestrian miles traveled would be difficult to compile, at least a rate could be developed per pedestrian trip, which would be a more accurate measure of the rate of fatalities. Again, the NHTSA can’t be bothered. I am certainly not the first to point out that pedestrian and bicyclist fatality counts are a mis-measure of safety, yet the federal, state, and local governments continue to ignore the issue.
The articles stated: “Fatalities are more of an urban phenomenon,” said Ted Rogers, who writes the BikinginLA.com blog.” I did not find such a quote in the blog in the last six months, but there is a blog post from October 2012 in which Rogers cautions against using statistics without context, as was done in an LA Times article and yet again in this article. Of course there are more fatalities in cities – there are more bicyclists there.
The LA Times article states: “The NHTSA said 70% of all bicycle-related deaths involve head injuries but that barely one-third of cyclists wear helmets.” I’m not sure where this factoid came from, but it was not in the NHTSA press release or traffic safety fact. What does it mean? Nothing! The implication, I’m sure intended, is that the 70% of bicycle-related crashes would not have been fatal, if only the bicyclist had been wearing a helmet. A helmet is not designed for collisions with motor vehicles. They are only tested up to 12 mph, and even at those low speeds, they are not 100% effective. I believe that most of these fatalities would have occurred whether the bicyclists were wearing helmets or not. In the contest between a one ton (or more) motor vehicle and a bicyclist wearing a lightweight piece of foam, the bicyclist is going to lose. Helmets may be effective in reducing head injuries for bicyclist self-falls, though even that is open to question, but they have very little to do with crashes involving motor vehicles. This is just more of the “blame the bicyclist” view of roadway safety.
So, take articles like these with a large grain of salt!