Are older cyclists endangering themselves?

NPR headline says deaths and injuries are spiking — but it’s wrong. From MNN, September 2015.

There’s safety in numbers, not clothing (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

Activists and planners are doing everything they can to get more people onto bikes and out of cars. After all, cycling is good for everyone, right? Not if you listen to NPR, which ran a story under the scary headline As More Adults Pedal, Their Biking Injuries And Deaths Spike, Too. The article notes that hospital admissions have more than doubled in recent years, with the biggest rise among cyclists 45 and over. 

“There are just more people riding and getting injured in that age group. It’s definitely striking,” says Dr. Benjamin Breyer, who led the study at the University of California, San Francisco.

Breyer goes on to suggest that perhaps it is due to what he calls the Lance Armstrong Effect, where he suggests that a lot more riders took up cycling, and that “more men in their 50s and 60s on road bikes, riding at high speeds, Breyer says — a recipe for serious injuries.”

There is no question that there has been an increase in the number of MAMILs (middle aged men in Lycra) on fast bikes, and some are getting injured; just look at what happened to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. But the biggest increase in the number of cyclists has been among those who are using them for more casual riding and exercise, or commuting. They don’t own any Lycra.

The real growth in cycling is among boomers and seniors. (Photo: People for Bikes)

While the number of accidents among older cyclists is going up, the rate at which they are injured is going down. That’s because the number of cyclists is growing much faster than the number of injuries. The increase in the number of cyclists over 60 increased by 320 percent. 

The article also doesn’t look at the mortality rate among the cyclists versus the rest of the population; studies have shown that exercising regularly can add years to your life and significantly increase their quality. As a Harvard study noted:

Regular exercise prolongs life and reduces the burden of disease and disability in old age. In reviewing the data, Dr. J. Michael McGinnis of the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) concludes that regular physical activity appears to reduce the overall mortality rate by more than a quarter and to increase the life expectancy by more than two years compared with the sedentary population’s average.

To be fair to NPR, the actual radio bit, and the transcript, makes this point, with Breyer saying clearly:

I really do want to emphasize I think bicycle riding is fantastic. What a great way to get and then stay in shape. It’s been shown to improve your overall well-being. It’s been shown to reduce your overall mortality.

But that isn’t in the article, which from its headline to its conclusion, tends to a) perpetuate the notion that cycling is dangerous and b) shift the burden of responsibility to the cyclist for wearing helmets and reflective gear, while noting “even that might not be enough” — gee, perhaps infrastructure should be fixed, bike lanes should be built, speed limits should be reduced? It concludes:

But at the end of the day, reducing cycling accidents may boil down to something simpler: Making sure that bikers know the rules of the road — and that drivers know how to deal with bikers.

The tone of the article immediately brought forth well over a thousand comments, most of which blame the cyclists for blowing through stop signs and red lights, riding on the sidewalk and generally causing all the accidents, which is exactly what you would expect from that conclusion. However study after study, with numbers from the cities and countries with more cyclists and better bike infrastructure, show that the solution to the problem is to provide decent cycling infrastructure and to get more people on bikes, and that there is safety in numbers, not in helmets and reflective clothing. Look at the statistics:

The more you bike, the safer it gets. (Photo: Forbes/Statista)

The United States has just about the lowest rate of cycling, and has by far the highest rate of death. The countries with the best bike infrastructure have, to nobody’s surprise, the highest rates of cycling and the lowest mortality rate. Their health costs are a whole lot lower per capita because their citizens are a lot healthier from all that cycling. One would think that National Public Radio would be encouraging people to cycle instead of scaring them off it, and that they would look at the data instead of blaming the victims.

Or perhaps instead of writing all this, I should just send them this infographic from Momentum Magazine.

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