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Bike vs. Car: Data on deaths lacking
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John Bennett is executive director of the Savannah Bicycle Campaign.

Imagine what would happen if, in a single year, more than 5,000 Americans were killed and another 45,000 injured in circumstances that weren't always completely understood, but in many cases were avoidable. Imagine the public outrage. Imagine the demand for investigations and calls for preventative action.

Yet these figures are not imaginary. They describe the unacceptably common occurrence of people killed while riding bikes and walking in communities across the country and right here in Savannah.

Despite the staggering statistics and tragic consequences, the United States Department of Transportation recently proposed safety standards that do not measure, analyze or develop strategies to prevent the 16 percent of fatal traffic crashes that involve people who were walking or riding bikes when they were killed.

The need for federal performance measures and mortality reduction targets is especially critical here in Georgia. Our Strategic Highway Safety Plan, which helps determine how millions of federal safety dollars are spent, does not include a specific performance measure to reduce bicyclist fatalities, despite the fact that those fatalities have been on in our state the rise since 2011.

The League of American Bicyclists released a report last week, “Every Bicyclist Counts,” which undertook “the grim task of tracking and documenting” 628 fatal traffic crashes involving bicyclists and pedestrians.

The report yielded some important revelations, including a higher than expected number of cyclists (approximately 40 percent) killed when motorists hit them from behind.

The most striking finding, however, is what could not be fully documented or revealed. The LAB report uncovers a lack of data, not just on the causes of deadly crashes, but “on the result of each crash, how blame was assigned, how motorists were treated, and the consequences (either civil or criminal) for motorists found at fault.”

In the words of a certain former Bush administration official, when it comes to a comprehensive accounting of how and why people are killed while riding bikes, and what happens in the aftermath, we are dealing with known unknowns. And maybe even unknown unknowns.

The study also notes with concern the tone of media reports on bicyclist injuries and deaths. It’s routine to read the headline, “Bicyclist hit by car,” but rarely the more accurate “Driver hits bicyclist.”

The passive voice and emphasis on the vehicle rather than its operator subtly shifts blame onto the killed or injured, often well before the true cause of a crash is known.

The problem is exacerbated by the lack of information available between the time of the crash and newsroom deadlines. Preliminary police reports and information gathered by harried reporters in the field frequently convey only partial details that may or may not be relevant. News organizations are understaffed and often don’t have the capacity to follow up on every story to explain the results of investigations completed weeks later. The news cycle moves quickly and our attention spans are short. We may never learn, for instance, if further investigation revealed that a driver was texting when he hit a man who was bicycling to an early morning shift wearing the navy blue uniform required at his workplace.

If any memory of that initial (and often only) account lingers, we may recall a TV reporter at the scene remarking that the cyclist was wearing dark clothing. Over time this shades our perceptions of why people die on our streets.

Even if we comprehend that the causes of crashes are often too complex to be explained away as wardrobe malfunctions, we may come to begrudgingly accept conditions and behaviors that are deadly to people who walk or ride bicycles. Indeed, the report finds a “lack of a sense of outrage over these deaths, even in communities where this kind of tragedy is relatively common.”

When we surrender a street as a lost cause because it’s too dangerous for walking or biking, we also abandon our fellow citizens who, due to circumstances beyond their control, must walk to work on that street or ride their bikes on it to get home.

The results of continued complacency are clear. Without a “measure that significantly improves accountability and data collection processes for the future,” as the report urges, we’ll continue to lose coworkers, neighbors, friends and family members to types of crashes that can be quantified, analyzed and, in many cases, prevented.

“There are two major ways to create safer roads: behavior changes by people using the roadways and engineering changes by the people creating and maintaining them,” the report holds. Without a national emphasis on reducing fatalities, our effectiveness at doing either will be limited.