Yet again, the passage of a 3 foot passing law, designed to protect cyclists as drivers pass them, sparked a debate. This time, the debate ensued in San Diego, California.
The argument was over sharing the road, not surprising given that, with the passage of the law, drivers would now be required to give cyclists more room when passing then they had before. In the eyes of some drivers, this was unfair because they thought that cyclists caused more accidents than drivers and therefore resented having to change their driving habits to increase the safety of other road users.
Cyclists, on the other hand, who have more to lose in bike-car crashes, countered with evidence from numerous studies showing drivers as being at fault a majority of the time. Most studies to date have borne this out.
Alleged proof that cyclists were at fault a majority of the time was published on The San Diego Union-Tribune’s website.
“According to the 2,515 accident reports on crashes between cyclists and motorists resulting in the injury or death of a bicyclist in San Diego County from 2011 to September 2014, it was the cyclist who was most often found at fault, when fault was determined.
In 2011, officers determined fault in 701 crashes between a bicyclist and a motorist in which a cyclist was hurt or killed, according to the reports, submitted to California’s Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System. Cyclists were found to be the party most at fault in 390 of those crashes — or 56 percent of the time, the records show.
In 2012, bicyclists shouldered most of the blame 60 percent of the time. Cyclists were said to be most at fault 56 percent of the time in 2013, and, in crashes reported through September this year, were blamed 57 percent of the time.”
From the numbers in these “accident reports” one would conclude that cyclists are causing a lot of accidents. Without analysis, this appears to be true. However, it’s possible to manipulate statistics to prove something other than what they say, by taking them literally.
In this case, a couple of facts which would shed light on what these numbers mean, are omitted. First, we must focus on the word “blame,” as in blamed for causing the crash. In most places, police officers are not trained to properly assess or investigate bike-car crashes. They don’t know enough about riding bicycles, or how bicycles interact with cars in traffic to understand who did what.
Much of the time, officers blame cyclists for things they did not do. Some of this blame comes from bias and some of it comes from ignorance.
Anyone who has ever read a police report of a bike-car accident they were involved in will tell you that the report contained errors. These can be errors of fact or errors of judgment on the part of eye witnesses or the reporting officer.
Second, if you manage to read all the way to page 3 of this very long article, you will find the following:
“Bicyclists between 15 and 19 were most likely to be involved in the 2,014 countywide crashes analyzed from 2011-13, and were those most likely to be found at fault. (17% of all crashes involved 15- to 19-year-olds; and 21% of bicyclists found at fault were 15-19.)”
Look at the age of the bicyclists most likely to be involved in the crashes analyzed from 2011-13; they were teenagers. Teenagers are known for using poor judgment. They often use poor judgment while driving. Why would anyone expect them to act differently on a bicycle?
The article also mentioned that the vast majority of crashes were caused by males — no doubt, young males. Young males are notorious for their risk-taking behavior. Most of them see themselves as invincible and do things most older people, male or female, would not do.
This population is hardly representative of bicyclists as a whole. If we looked at the statistics with more scrutiny, we would probably discover a number of things, the most glaring of which is that the kind of behavior attributed to cyclists most often, red light running, riding against traffic and weaving in and out of cars, is behavior consistent with young male bravado.
People in this age group are not the only ones who ride bicycles. Older people and females also ride bicycles. Yet the article, while mentioning the small number of female cyclists who were blamed for causing crashes, doesn’t tell us how often older cyclists and female cyclists were injured by irresponsible drivers compared to the males who are riding recklessly.
In other words, it’s not clear that there is any correlation between the reckless behavior motorists are always referring to and which cyclists get injured by cars, and why. Anecdotally, most cyclists know that cyclists who are doing nothing wrong sometimes get struck from behind by inattentive drivers. They also get struck by drivers who are texting.
In these scenarios, cyclists are not doing anything wrong. And yet, the drivers don’t get charged in most cases, even when the cyclist is killed, because of biases in the system.
No article blaming cyclists for causing most bike-car crashes would be complete without a slew of comments. A few are worth mentioning.
One about personal responsibility is a classic.
Another anti-bicyclist sees cyclists as “100% to blame” for bike-car crashes.
And, if we were about to give up hope, a bicycle advocate comes along and leaves a list of links — half a dozen, to be exact — to studies showing drivers as being at fault most of the time in car versus bicycle crashes.
Until there are fewer cars on the road and more bicycles in their place, drivers will continue to resent having to share the road. As with everything in life, vehicle crash statistics must always be taken with a grain of salt. Unless a traffic camera catches the crash, assigning blame will always be a matter of driver, witness and police bias against cyclists and he said-she said arguments about which vehicle did what.