When cyclists are killed by drivers, it rarely makes national news. But after two recent reports from federal agencies, suddenly government bureaucrats and newspaper columnists and big-city mayors have begun opining on the nature of the problem and what to do about it.

It started on October 22 when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a new annual report indicating that 857 cyclists were killed in 2018, the highest figure in three decades. Then on November 5, the National Transportation Safety Board released its first major analysis of bicycle safety since 1972.

Conversations about why cyclists die are frequently contentious, but at least no one is disputing the statistics. For most of the early part of this millennium, things seemed to be trending in a wholly positive way for cyclists. Urban riding was booming and nearly every city in the United States was building new bike lanes as the numbers of fatalities fell each year.

The situation seemed great—until it wasn’t great. Right around 2011, things started arcing in the wrong direction. In 2010, a total of 618 cyclists were killed—hardly miraculous, but the lowest toll in at least 40 years. Then every year after that, the number of casualties has gotten progressively worse. The newly released 2018 statistics mean that the fatality rate for riders has risen 37 percent in just nine years—and NHTSA data indicate that the death rate for urban and female cyclists has soared even more.

So while the NTSB analysis focused primarily on encouraging or mandating greater helmet use, as well as things cyclists, road designers, and carmakers should do so riders are more conspicuous to motorists, those factors don’t really explain why a serious, sustained uptick of deaths began in 2011. It’s not like helmet use had a major decline, or cities ripped out quality protected bike lanes, or high-viz apparel or auto headlights got worse. These factors, especially related to road design, might have an impact on fatalities going forward, but they don’t explain why more cyclists have been dying in the past decade.

However, there are five dynamics that together explain this catastrophic increase in the fatality rate since 2010. Understanding them can help us turn around cycling’s grimmest statistic.

1. Vehicles Are Bigger

If you examine new vehicle sales, you’ll see that a major industry shift began a decade ago. In 2009, new car sales narrowly outpaced new trucks. But since then, America has fallen in love with SUVs and big pickup trucks. Now more than two thirds of all new vehicle sales are light trucks like SUVS and pickups. Paradoxically, one reason that consumers have sprung for SUVs is the perception that they’re safer. And they seem to be—if you’re sitting inside one. The same NHTSA report that publicized the record number of cycling fatalities noted that the fatality rate of Americans in motor vehicles fell for the second consecutive year.

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Alas, for cyclists and pedestrians it’s a different story. For one thing, trucks are heavier than cars. Perhaps you remember the formula F = ma from high-school physics. This is a fancy way of expressing that the force of a collision increases proportionally to the mass of a vehicle. A Ford Explorer tips the scales at roughly 1,200 pounds heavier than a Toyota Camry. Most people understand that a faster-moving vehicle is more likely to badly hurt or kill a cyclist than a slow-moving vehicle, but many don’t realize that an Explorer traveling at 30mph brings 35 percent more force to a collision than that Camry. (Nor do many consumers ponder how SUVs and trucks generally have inferior braking performance compared to passenger cars.) This is hardly an attempt to single out Ford’s popular SUV—the reality is that our communities are full of huge SUVs with three rows of seating and some of these behemoths weigh nearly three tons.

A pickup truck or SUV would knock 65 percent of adults and 93 percent of children to the ground.

Aside from their overall size, these vehicles endanger cyclists (and pedestrians) because their grilles are larger and higher. This might look cool to potential buyers, or convey power or safety, but any cyclist who gets hit by one will suffer from some painful physics. A rider who is hit by a car is more likely to fly up on the hood—which sucks—but anyone hit by a big SUV or pickup is unfortunately more likely to get sent to the pavement where there’s a good chance they’ll be run over. This is especially true for children who are walking or riding; because of their smaller stature they’re far more likely to be hit in the head or torso. One study by researchers at University of Michigan determined that a pickup truck or SUV would knock 65 percent of adults and 93 percent of children to the ground.

Not surprisingly, an analysis of crash data reveals that trucks and SUVs are far more likely to kill people than cars and minivans. And if that’s not bad enough, auto-industry analysts project that the trend will continue—within a few years fewer than one-third of U.S. vehicle sales will be passenger cars.

2. Smartphone Use Is on the Rise

Distracted driving isn’t a new problem—but until recently it was often attributed to people fiddling with radios or dealing with passengers. During the same timeframe in which cycling fatalities have spiked, a new distraction has appeared on our roadways: the smartphone.

There are more than 250 million smartphone users in the U.S., compared with roughly 59 million in 2010. Put another way, Apple sold 20 times as many iPhones in 2018 than in 2009, way back when Instagram didn’t even exist. The executive summary is that nearly everyone on the road has one—and the temptation to use one has grown, too.

The math gets even scarier when you examine how and when smartphones are used by drivers. One large study by Zendrive, based on 180 billion miles of driver data, concluded that that 88 percent of trips by U.S. drivers involve smartphone use, with an average of 3.5 minutes per hour. And research by the automaker Volvo indicates that 60 percent of drivers admit to regular texting while in motion. Given that a car going 50 miles per hour will travel 220 feet in 3 seconds, those are not reassuring data points. One study from Oregon State University found that glancing away from the road for two seconds or more increases the risk of a crash between four to 24 times. And numerous other studies (like this and this) document an astonishing use of social media apps, texting, even video consumption on the road.

There’s strong evidence that tougher legislation could limit the problem. One analysis discovered that among the 10 states that have the highest rates of deaths caused by distracted driving, only two (Delaware and Illinois) had bans on handheld phone use—and that the states with the strictest laws related to handheld phone use had 25 percent fewer distracted driving deaths (per vehicle mile) than the national average. And yet, according to the Governors Highway Safety Administration, only 15 states have a complete ban on such handheld use.

3. People Drive More Than Ever

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If you pull up data on how much Americans drive, you’ll see numbers tilt skyward in roughly the same timeframe that cyclist deaths rise. (Experts say historically that as gas prices fall, Americans drive more.) The numbers bottomed out in February 2010, when U.S. drivers traveled 212.9 billion miles (that’s 1,145 round trips to the sun and 8.5 million laps around the Earth!) and then started climbing precipitously. Most recently (in August 2019), U.S. drivers covered 288.1 billion miles, a rise of 75 billion miles—a 35 percent increase.

All this driving is presumably a big win for the oil companies, but it’s not exactly a win for everyone else, especially cyclists. The rise in miles driven means that there’s more congestion and frustrated drivers than ever before, that city streets and commuting roads are more crowded, and statistically more opportunities for a crash.

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4. There Are More Cyclists on the Roads

According to market research firm Statistica, the number of U.S. cyclists rose from 42.35 million in 2010 to 45.83 million in 2016. It’s widely believed that while participation in cycling is relatively flat in the U.S., that the biggest bright spot for growth is centered in large cities. In that vein, research from advocacy organization People for Bikes found that the number of bike commuters in 10 large U.S. cities (including New York, Washington, D.C., Boston, and San Francisco) grew an average of 77 percent in the same time frame that nationwide fatalities spiked. At the same time, the U.S. has seen an explosion in the popularity of bike share—since its launch in 2013, for example, users of New York City’s CitiBike have pedaled more than 150 million miles. These kinds of stats help contextualize why the fatality rate in urban areas (and quite likely, for women) have risen so precipitously since 2010.

In the end, Americans are driving more and, in cities at least, riding more and not surprisingly, more cyclists are dying. But it is surprising that the number of fatalities appears to be rising faster than the growth in participation or miles ridden. Decades of research substantiate the concept known as Safety in Numbers. Known as Sneed’s Law since the 1940s, the theory hypothesizes an inverse relationship between the number of cyclists (or pedestrians or users of other transit modes) and the rate of collisions. It’s a logical idea and it helps explain why cycling is safer in Amsterdam than it is in Atlanta—that a significant presence of riders “forces” drivers to operate more safely.

Decades of studies (like this one) from all over the world back up Sneed’s Law, but the statistical trends in the U.S. suggest the law is not universal. Some researchers speculate that the safety in numbers effect may be predictable only when cyclists reach a certain level of density on city streets. But it’s also possible that Sneed’s Law simply can’t factor in the impact of smartphone use and road rage and escalating traffic in big U.S. cities.

5. Vision Zero Has Stalled

Between 2012 and 2015, many large U.S. cities (including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.) adopted a formal plan to institute Vision Zero, road design guidelines that aspire to eliminate deaths on streets and highways. Many of these cities were already making slow progress to achieve safer streets for cyclists and pedestrians—announcing ambitious-sounding plans to build networks of bike lanes, for instance. But the last couple years have seen a dramatic slowdown in these plans. It turns out that it’s often easier to propose or support Vision Zero than it is to implement it in a complicated political environment. This is especially true in cities like New York and Los Angeles, where pushback from people who strongly oppose removing traffic lanes or parking spaces has often kept political leaders from enacting approved safety projects.

It turns out that it’s often easier to propose or support Vision Zero than it is to implement it.

Perhaps there’s a silver lining amid all this darkness. New York City is presently experiencing the deadliest year for cycling in two decades—as of November 9, when a hit-and-run dump-truck driver killed a 25-year-old cyclist, the death toll in New York stood at 28 compared with only 10 the previous year. It would be preferable if such a wide-scale human sacrifice wasn’t necessary to spur change, but the escalating carnage forced Mayor Bill De Blasio and the city council to adopt a $1.7 billion plan to build 250 miles of new protected bike lanes and to massively expand city sidewalks in the name of safety.

This is the kind of action that will move the needle on cycling fatalities in the right direction. Just because things got worse in the last 10 years doesn’t mean they can’t get better in the next decade.

[Find 52 weeks of tips and motivation, with space to fill in your mileage and favorite routes, with the Bicycling Training Journal.]

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peter flax
PETER FLAX is based in Los Angeles and writes about sports, adventure, and culture.