Is Cycling Safe?

As an avid cyclist myself, I was fascinated by a recent article in the New York Times titled, “How Safe Is Cycling? It’s Hard to Say.”

The article touches on several fascinating points. The first is that we don’t have good data to give us an indication of exactly how dangerous cycling is compared to other sports or if cycling is getting more or less dangerous over time.  The U.S. Center for Disease Control’s Director for the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Linda Degutis, is quoted in the article as saying that based on CDC statistics on death and emergency room visits there is no apparent trend over time.  She was also referenced as stating that bicycling did not seem to be more dangerous than other sports.

The second thing in the article that I found interesting was a summary of research done by Rochelle Dicker at the University of California, San Francisco. Dr. Dicker reviewed hospital and police records for approximately 2500 cyclists who had been treated at San Francisco General Hospital for injuries. One of the findings from this work was that about one half of the cycling injuries examined in this study involved motor vehicles and about one half did not. Given that these injuries were on the more serious end of the spectrum, it’s easy to think that the majority of them would involve a collision with a motor vehicle but again, half did not. This is of course very San Francisco specific data and the findings might not be generalizable to other locations but it definitely got me questioning my own perception around the majority of serious cycling injuries being associated with motor vehicles.

A third point that I found interesting was that given the current sources of surveillance, cycling injuries are likely to be underreported. The article quotes George Loewenstein, a professor at Carnegie Mellon, who compared automobile injuries to cycling injuries and stated that those who sustain cycling injuries are less likely to file a police report or go to emergency rooms and instead may seek other sources of care that would bypass the current surveillance system. I think professor Loewenstein makes an interesting point in the article regarding the differences between data on automobile and bicycling injuries but it seems to me that the issues with underreporting of cycling injuries would be comparable to those of the underreporting of injuries associated with other sports. Somebody please correct me if I’m obviously wrong on that.

The last point in the article that I found fascinating was the association of cycling injuries with traumatic events and the impact that might have on our collective perception of the danger of cycling. Here again professor Loewenstein was referenced in the article and pointed out that injuries associated with traumatic events may have a greater psychological impact than the injuries from other sports that come on more gradually such as a stress fracture from running.

So is cycling any more or less dangerous than other sports or do some of us just think that because the traumatic nature of many cycling injuries makes an impression on us? I think the correct answer is, “we don’t know yet.” In the meantime, I will keep cycling.

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