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Bikexchange.com logo, link to Home        Washington Bicycling Hub - Fall '06      Bikexchange.com logo, link to Home 
Cyclists Usually To Blame in Australian Fatalities
Surprising Research Downunder Points to Need for Better Visibility

By Charles Pekow

Mr. Pekow, a seasoned Washington, DC journalist, provides Bikexchange.com with continuing coverage of national legislative news on bicycling issues. 

A lot fewer bicyclists would be killed on the road if cyclist and motorists only saw each other better. And in most of the fatal collisions, the cyclists are largely responsible for their own deaths. Or at least that’s the case in Australia, according to a recent government report on bicyclist deaths downunder. The most common type of fatal crash for bicyclists in Australia consisted of cyclists getting hit from behind by a motorist using the same lane, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) reports. Most of these deaths came on rural roads (38 of 58) in broad daylight. (Australia defines “rural” as a community with fewer than 1,000 inhabitants.)

While in most of the come-from-behind cases, the bicyclist wasn’t responsible for the crash, it was bicyclist error that caused most of the other common fatalities. The second most common source of bicyclist fatality consisted of riders entering a roadway and getting struck by an auto, says ATSB’s recent road safety report, Deaths of Cyclists due to Road Crashes.

ATSB operates as a semi-independent research agency within the Australian Government Department of Transport & Regional Services, similar to the National Transportation Safety Board in the United States.

Some 21 percent of fatalities occurred when the rider was hit from behind, followed by 16 percent being hit when entering a roadway. Only 11 percent involved getting hit from the side in the middle of the road and eight percent getting hit by an auto going the other way. The others involved a variety of other situations or the cause wasn’t clear.

In more than 60 percent of cases, the cyclist made the fatal move, such as riding into an intersection in front of an oncoming motor vehicle, either at intersections or entering the road from a cross street. In a third of cases, either the cyclist or driver didn’t see the other. In only a few cases statistically did the cyclist or driver make some other misjudgment, the cyclist failed to observe a traffic sign or signal, or the bike malfunctioned.

In most cases of motorists hitting cyclists from behind, ATSB couldn’t pinpoint the reason for the strike. Often, however, the motorist failed to see the cyclist – in some cases because of obstructed vision for whatever reason. In only five of 46 reported cases was the motorist reported drunk.

Rarely was a cyclist found drunk but in the 15 incidents where drug testing was done, 14 of the cyclists had drugs in their system – though the testing was only done in cases where drugs were suspected and it seems unlikely that the vast majority of killed cyclists were under the influence of drugs. Also, weather didn’t seem to be a factor in many cases as conditions were reported as “fine” in 86 percent.

ATSB acknowledges it can’t find data on the use of bicycles in Australia, but says “there is some evidence suggesting the growing popularity of cycling for commuting to work and school and for recreation.” The Australian Sports Commission’s annual survey showed a 15 percent increase in cycling in the country between 2001 (the first annual national survey) and 2005, for instance. Bicycle Industries Australia reports selling more than a million bicycles there every year since 2002 and rising gas prices are encouraging more Australians to use foot power to turn their wheels.

The study covers years 1991 through 2005 but gives more detail on the years 1996 through 2004 because the government had collected better statistics for that era. The report also focuses on deaths that occurred on or near roadways (auto lanes, bike lanes, side paths, sidewalks), known in Australia as the “road reserve.” Fewer than four percent of cycling fatalities occur off roadways, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Also transportation authorities that ATSB hopes to influence are less likely to control independent bike paths.

The study deals only with fatalities, not other crashes or cyclist injuries. A previous ATSB report showed that cyclists accounted for about 11 percent of serious roadway injuries in 2000 and 2001. ATSB, however, couldn’t get dependable data on more recent non-fatal bicycle crashes. Since the 1990s, cyclists have steadily accounted for between 2 and 3 percent of roadway fatalities in Australia. ATSB based its findings on coding in coroners’ reports.

The good news is that the trends are toward fewer deaths. In the 1990s, cyclist deaths ranged from the 40s to 80s per year; in the 21st Century, the range has dwindled to between 26 and 46.

But another statistic hasn’t changed significantly: In each period, males accounted for more than 80 percent of the deaths.

Of the 665 cyclist deaths recorded, 86 percent involved colliding with an auto. The remaining 14 percent involved a strike with pedestrians, trains, stationary objects or unknown or other causes. Among the auto accidents, 40 percent involved a car, 23 percent a rigid truck, 18 percent a van or four-wheel drive and 10 percent an articulated truck. Only a handful involved a motorcycle, bus or unknown vehicle.

The figures seem to suggest that commuters get hit more than recreational cyclists, as a majority of deaths occurred weekdays and about 30 percent between three and six p.m. Only 12.9 percent of fatal collisions occurred on Saturday and 12.2 percent on Sunday. Weekdays ranged from 14 percent to 15.6 percent.

ASTB compiled statistics but stopped short of thinking about ways to minimize crashes. But the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) in the United States recently compiled a list of previous reports on human errors that lead to traffic crashes. It meant its report, Human Factors Literature Reviews on Intersections, Speed Management, Pedestrians and Bicyclists, and Visibility, as a guide for transportation planners. It is filled with ideas from previous FHWA studies.

A few items:

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