Photo by Dystopos on Flickr.
The media pays a lot more attention to bicycle and pedestrian fatalities than it does car deaths. If reporters went beyond sensationalism to give commuters more accurate, thorough information, people could make smarter choices about how to get around.
One transportation myth the media often fuels is that driving is unusually safe. Car crashes are actually the nation’s leading cause of death for school-age children, and they’re much more likely than, say, attacks by strangers. Yet while some parents get flack for letting their children walk home unsupervised, thousands drive their children around every day.
Another myth is that bicycling is unusually dangerous. 2014 was great for bicycling, but tough for bicycling in the media. One widely-reported story, based on information from the Governors Highway Safety Association, highlighted an increase in bicycle fatalities. Reporters picked up the story and editors wrote alarming headlines.
The truth is that increased bicycling leads to safer streets with lower fatality rates. This happens so reliably that researchers call it “the safety in numbers effect.” While some did mention that ridership is increasing faster than fatalities, meaning that bicycling is getting safer, nearly every report ran with an alarming headline.
Sometimes, people flat-out omit the facts
Another story, based on a report by researchers at Washington State University, concerned an increased percentage of bicycle-related head injuries in cities with bikeshare (public bike rental) systems. Once again, the media took the bait. This story didn’t even pass the laugh test for cycling advocates, as it’s well known that bikeshare increases cycling and, again, more cycling means safer cycling.
Actually, the Washington State University study was downright misleading: The authors failed to mention that cities with bikeshare saw reductions in all types of injuries, leaving readers to do the math and to tease out the good news buried in the data. The authors—one of whom, F.P. Rivara, was also a source of the myth that cycle helmets are “85 percent effective,” a debunked claim that no longer appears on US government web sites— instead focused on misleading injury percentages, coming to an alarming conclusion.
While it is hard to find fault with reporters for being misled, I do fault them for jumping on yet another bicycle danger story. As of June 2014, the DC and New York City bikeshare systems had recorded 15.75 million trips with no fatalities. This figure flies in the face of the mayhem some predicted would come along with increases in people riding bikes.
Nationally, walking and driving are far more dangerous than transit
Of the 29,000 non-motorcyclist traffic and transit fatalities in the US in 2012, about 23,000 (80%) were people riding in or driving cars, 4,700 (16%) were people walking, 700 (2%) were people cycling, and 200 (1%) were people riding transit.
The only corresponding “mode share” percentages we have come from commuting: In 2012, about 90% of people in the US got to work by car or van, 3% walked, 1% cycled and 5% took transit. We unfortunately don’t have concrete numbers for how people get around outside of work, but the numbers we do have suggest that walking is very dangerous (studies show that suburbs are dangerous places to walk), followed by bicycling, driving and transit.
Personally, I see a disconnect between media coverage and the numbers, with walking and driving under-emphasized. While these numbers are not representative of transit-friendly Alexandria, we are not immune to sketchy reporting. We simply do not have straight-forward information and the information that we do have lacks context.
A good first step would be for reporters to provide monthly tallies of transportation fatalities and locations (the City Paper is working on just a list, with the help of the people behind Struck in DC) instead of gravitating toward stories featuring danger, excitement, and minimal alarm to car-driving readers.
Editors are missing an opportunity by not giving us the information we need to make wise transportation choices based on how we personally balance risk and reward.
On Saturday, a version of this post ran as Jonathan’s monthly column for Alexandria News.