Why do people bike on highways, breathe exhaust and risk injury or death?

One of the Facebook comments we got about yesterday’s post describing Colton King’s death asked the following question:

Biking is great, but why do bicyclists ride on highways? One, you breathe deeply all the exhaust fumes, and two you are constantly in danger of being killed or maimed. I agree that transportation should be different, but riding so close to all the exhaust pipes and even one sleepy or inattentive driver is just not smart. Same for runners/joggers on highways and country roads. Keep working for change! My sympathies to his family.

I thought the question was asked in a respectful manner, but it reflects what I find to be an illogical culture of driving we have in the United States. I try to answer questions like this in a way that helps people consider a new paradigm in which transportation mode is chosen by what makes sense instead of the way most people get around. Below is my response:

Remember Colton was riding his bicycle to work on a two-lane county road, not a highway, because it is the only road that goes to his workplace. But why not ask that same question of people in cars?

Why do people all group together in cars and drive on the same highway, at the same time, create congestion and breathe each other’s exhaust, even if it is unhealthy, expensive and most deaths occur on interstates and highways? They do it because those are the shortest, most convenient routes to get where they are going by car. In the  most of United States, most people never even consider using transit, walking or bicycling.

Sadly, that is true even though about half of all vehicle trips in the United States are ten miles or less, an easy bike ride. What if we removed half the people driving on our roads and convinced them to do what Colton did, ride their bicycle for short trips? If we could do that, everyone could breathe cleaner air, our healthcare costs would be lower, we could cut our transportation budget almost in half, reduce the gas tax, reduce carbon emissions and everyone would benefit. But the biggest benefit would be to the people who stopped driving short trips and began bicycling.

We have a culture of driving in the United States, even for very short trips. Incredibly, about 40% of all trips are two miles or less, yet 80% of those trips are made by car. The Wisconsin Bike Fed is working to encourage people who like to ride bicycles to take those short trips by bike instead of in a car. One of the reasons people tell us they don’t ride bicycles more is because they are afraid of riding on roads like County A, roads that have no shoulders, or roads with higher speeds, and roads that have heavy traffic. The Bike Fed is working to make those roads more comfortable places to walk and bicycle by adding paved shoulders, bike lanes, side paths, sidewalks, etc.

It is important to remember though, even in the light of this tragic death, that in general, bicycling remains an incredibly safe thing to do, and it keeps getting safer every year. Even breathing other people’s exhaust, bicycling is healthier than driving a car. If you factor in the reduced risk factor for obesogenic illnesses, riding a bicycle is probably safer than driving a car.

Thanks for your well wishes to those working for a healthier, safer Wisconsin, and your sympathies to the family. I hope my response helps reframe your question. Changing the way people think about how we get around takes time, but we are making progress.

Recently there have been some studies done to quantify the relative risk of cycling and weigh that agains the health benefits.

Many of the biggest risks we face in life can be reduced with one simple tool: the bicycle.

“For individuals who shift from car to bicycle, we estimated that beneficial effects of increased physical activity are substantially larger (3–14 months gained) than the potential mortality effect of increased inhaled air pollution doses (0.8–40 days lost) and the increase in traffic accidents (5–9 days lost). Societal benefits are even larger because of a modest reduction in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and traffic accidents.

Conclusions: On average, the estimated health benefits of cycling were substantially larger than the risks relative to car driving for individuals shifting their mode of transport.” Source: Do the Health Benefits of Cycling Outweigh the Risks? Jeroen Johan de Hartog1, Hanna Boogaard1, Hans Nijland2, Gerard Hoek1

Annual Risk Of Death During One’s Lifetime

Disease and Accidental Causes of Deaths Annual Deaths Death Risk During One’s Lifetime
Heart disease 652,486 1 in 5
Cancer 553,888 1 in 7
Stroke 150,074 1 in 24
Hospital Infections 99,000 1 in 38
Flu 59,664 1 in 63
Car accidents 44,757 1 in 84
Suicide 31,484 1 in 119
Accidental poisoning 19,456 1 in 193
MRSA (resistant bacteria) 19,000 1 in 197
Falls 17,229 1 in 218
Drowning 3,306 1 in 1,134
Bike accident 762 1 in 4,919
Air/space accident 742 1 in 5,051
Excessive cold 620 1 in 6,045
Sun/heat exposure 273 1 in 13,729
Lightning 47 1 in 79,746
Train crash 24 1 in 156,169
Fireworks 11 1 in 340,733
Shark attack 1 1 in 3,748,067

Sources: All accidental death information from National Safety Council. Disease death information from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Shark fatality data provided by the International Shark Attack File.

I have shared the following graphic many times, but I will continue to share it whenever people worry that riding a bicycle is dangerous, complain that traffic is just getting worse and worse, or admonish people for taking their life in their own hands by riding a bicycle in traffic.  The fact is that bicycling is safe and keeps getting safer all the time.

The number of crashes has been on the decline for years, even as the number of people commuting by bicycle increases. The fatal crash numbers are so small, that the variations from year to year are probably statistically insignificant. Given the number of people riding is going up, the actual fatal crash rate is declining too.

All the risk assessments like the one above that I have seen tend to show the risk of death for bicycling is lower than the risk of death in a motor vehicle. Some still argue we don’t have the best data for bicycling to fairly compare it to other activities that have been studied more. But even if you question all the studies, the statistics and the science, I find it hard to argue with the idea that it is unhealthy and wasteful to drive trips two miles or less when there are other healthier, safer, less costly options available.

About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

13 thoughts on “Why do people bike on highways, breathe exhaust and risk injury or death?

  1. I commute to work (9 miles one way) as often as I can, even in the winter time, when it’s not too bitterly cold and roads are snow and ice free. However, the manager at work has just recently been giving me grief about me riding to work. He thinks I am losing energy by biking to work and that if I would not bike to work, I would be more productive at work. Of course this is not true. Since I started biking to work 4 years ago, my energy level has increased and I am more alert and able to do my job with more efficiency and speed because my body is overall more fit and have only missed 1 day of work due to illness during the past 4 years. I have a relatively safe county road to bike on to work,, but just so happens to be the letter “A”, too. The speed limit on the road is 45 mph and I have 3 feet of paved road to the right of the white line that I can ride on. It’s not an official bike lane because it doesn’t say “bike lane”, but it’s just as good as a bike lane. Since I consider what he is doing as harrasement, I have reported him to our union steward and the union is defending my right to ride my bike to work and they are going to get this harrasement to stop. This is just another reason why we need unions in this country, so that workers can ride their bike to work, if they want to, without harrasement from mangers, fellow employees etc. I think he also believes that I am endangering my life by riding to work, but in my opinion that should be none of his concern, since I am not on the clock when I am riding my bike, and how I get to work should be none of his business as long as I am getting to work on time and not missing any days of work due to riding my bike to work. I have never been late for work while riding to work. That doesn’t mean it can’t ever happen, but that can be said about any means of transportation. I told him that I always feel safer on my bike then in a car, just because my speed is considerably less. It takes me 15 minutes to get to work by car, and a half hour by bike. I get 2 hours of exercise with only a half hour more of my time. Commuting to work by bike is being a wise steward of my time and also my wallet in gas savings. I should not have to defend myself to ride my bike to work because the facts and date are right in front of his eyes.

  2. Thanks for all this information. I will make a copy of this and give it to my union steward and union to use it in my defense. This claim of me losing energy because I ride my bike to work does not hold any water. None of my coworkers or supervisors have noticed any loss of energy in me and think I am doing a great job and are amazed at how healthy and young I look at 54 years old. They can’t believe I biked over 6,000 miles last year and over 22,000 miles in 4 years, but I have all the GPS data to prove it. And I did it all safely without a single crash or accident of any kind. There are more beings on the road then just people walking, riding bikes, and people driving cars. There are angels with protective wings around me and it’s the truth!

  3. Very interesting info. Thank you for this. When you consider what a car-worshipping culture we live in and how often the worship of cars is reinforced in our media (when was the last time you saw a tv show person commute anywhere by bike?), real facts like these can help to make a crack in the “but I NEED a car!” mindset. At the same time, making biking even safer – by working for protected bike lanes in our communities and for stronger penalties for car drivers injuring pedestrians and bicyclists – is very important to encourage more people to try bike commuting or biking to shop or for entertainment. Consequences for injuring bicyclists need to be much more severe and much more evenly handed out, I believe.

  4. Why do people DRIVE on highways? Far more people die in car accidents than in bike accidents. The fact this driver killed a cyclist is only a coincidence. Sooner or later, an inattentive driver is going to kill himself or someone else. In this case, it just happened to be a cyclist. More often, it is another driver. Some motorist will get killed around here in the next day or two, and no one will care or make a comment, because it’s so normal.

  5. I have a question about the stats. Are the “762″ bike accidents really “bike accidents”? I have a hunch that they are actually “car accidents.” In other words, the primary cause of death was the involvement of a car. The cyclist most likely did not hit a tree, or fall off of a cliff. Strict cycling accidents are rare, and most “bike” accidents are caused by cars, and should be categorized as “car accidents.” Or – and I think this is unlikely – are the 762 fatalities the ones in which the cyclist was determined to be at fault? I doubt it. If a car runs down a cyclist, or crosses two lanes and kills a cyclist on the other side of the road, my guess that the “cause of death,” is “bike accident,” even though the true cause was a car.

    • Hey Lance, first, they are “crashes” not accidents, another important distinction. But your point is valid, WisDOT figures come from MV4000 crash reports. Obviously MV stands for motor vehicle, and in virtually every crash report, a motor vehicle is involved, even if only the person on a bicycle or walking suffered an injury or died. Then the other point I think you were making addresses who was at fault. Generally speaking, about half of the crashes the person driving the motor vehicle is at fault.

      I do want to note that while it is true that fatal bicycle crashes not involving a motor vehicle are far less common, they do happen. Falls (no other vehicle involved) on bicycles account for a little more than half of all crashes.

      • Hi Dave, Thank you for your reply. I apologize for writing “accidents,” and I am glad you corrected me with “CRASHES.” That is important, I agree. I drive a lot for work, and drove down Hwy A Friday morning. It seems to be an almost impossible location for this fatality to have happened.

        By the way, you do a great job with your replies and blog posts about safety. I admire your ability to remain so level-headed and professional.

  6. This is a good reason to support keeping complete streets in the state budget. Include bike/ped facilities as part of road projects. Transportation benefits for everyone.

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