As more Americans try to stay healthier and to beat the pains of commuting by car, bus, or light rail systems, many (including yours truly) have turned to bicycling. But as a result, non-fatal bike injuries have skyrocketed—especially for men and for riders older than 45—and two-wheel collision treatment has become expensive: The annual cost of medical care for bike crashes in 2013 alone exceeded $24.4 billion, double the amount for all occupational illnesses.
Those are findings of a multi-year study (1997-2013) of electronic records on 3.8 million non-fatal and 9,839 bike-related deaths, research published in Injury Prevention, an online specialty journal.
A key reason why the cost of cycling wrecks—including for emergency transport, hospital charges, rehabilitation, nursing home stays, and lost work and quality of life—has raced upwards: Bikers more than ever are mixing it up with cars on streets. Road collisions accounted for just under half of biking injuries in 1997. They’re almost two-thirds of such wrecks now.
That means biker riders suffer more serious injury. They’re also older, with the 45-plus crowd not quite doubling to an estimated, annual bike travel of 3.6 trillion miles. This also has meant that mature riders, who once accounted for around a quarter of the medical costs for bike wrecks now tally about half those expenses. Older riders are more likely to be fatally injured. They take longer to recuperate, and their economic losses can be higher.
Guys? They’re hitting the roads hard on two wheels, increasing not only their mileage pedaled but also accounting with their more aggressive riding for a little more than three-quarters of injured bikers’ medical costs.
Researchers said that governments could protect riders more, for example, by providing them with special paths or by striped off or bordered lanes. Riders could benefit if experts shielded them more from harms from obstacles like sign poles, street lights, fire hydrants, and parking meters.
All these safety measures come with costs, which need to be balanced: The researchers noted that building safer networks that covered just a sixth of the 8.66 million miles that can be cycled across the country would cost $300 billion or so, just a bit more than what the nation expended in a decade on fatal and non-fatal biking crashes. They noted that helmet wearing has cut non-fatal biking injuries significantly.
In my practice, I see the injuries that vehicle collisions can cause. I’m all in favor of greater public awareness about biking safety, such as through information provided by the District Department of Transportation, and common sense protective measures such as campaigns spreading nationally for the “Dutch Reach,” a way to keep riders from the all too common injuries they suffer from carelessly opened vehicle doors.
We all need to exercise greater patience and caution when we get behind the wheel of multi-ton vehicles, and, legally, must share the road with vulnerable pedestrians and bicyclists. Please give them the benefit of the doubt, no matter how challenging the circumstance. After years of declines, vehicle fatalities and injuries are rising sharply again, and we all must do whatever we can to slash the harms of distracted, drunk, drugged, and drowsy driving.