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With surprising fanfare, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a major new analysis of bicycling safety on November 5 that turned out to be a largely tone-deaf exercise in victim blaming. The NTSB, perhaps best known for investigating plane crashes, repeatedly noted that this was the federal agency’s first report on the topic since 1972.
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Forty-seven years is a pretty big chunk of time, but the NTSB’s recommendations suggest that investigators and bureaucrats didn’t spend a ton of that time talking to cyclists or looking at data or thinking deeply about why so many riders are being killed on roads in the United States. At a public meeting in Washington, D.C., where the report was unveiled to the public, NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt framed the urgency of the issues around newly released statistics from the National Highway Travel and Safety Administration indicating that 857 American cyclists were killed in 2018, the worst death toll in three decades.
And yet the top-line proposals from the NTSB largely shifted responsibility to solve this deadly crisis onto cyclists themselves. Two of the three key recommendations focused on the need for riders to wear helmets and be more conspicuous. (The third was about improving road design, which is awesome because poor cycling infrastructure is an actual cause of cycling fatalities.)
As if the harping on how people pedaling to work should outfit themselves wasn’t worrisome enough, the top NTSB officials also took pains to direct a message to the cycling community: That bike riders need to do a better job following traffic rules and obeying traffic signals to reduce their risk on the road.
Before I offer a primal scream on all the important problems and issues that the NTSB seemed to ignore in their report, let me first take a battle axe to their preeminent initiatives to make cyclists safer. This isn’t the time or place to reopen the helmet debate but let me raise just two points. First, if NTSB officials did even a casual search of data on the topic, they’d see that there’s a nearly perfectly inverse relationship between helmet use and fatality rates—the countries where the fewest riders wear lids have the lowest death rates, and vice versa. To state the obvious: Having mindful road design and a culture that respects vulnerable road users like cyclists saves tons more lives than any headgear.
Second, the NTSB could have pondered the implications of this widely quoted statistic indicating that a little more than half of all cyclists killed in crashes weren’t wearing a helmet. What tends to be overlooked in reporting this statistic is that it also means half of all cyclists killed were wearing a helmet, that despite whatever safety benefits these products may confer in certain situations, a foam cap is not a failsafe protection to people when they are run over by multi-ton vehicles traveling at a high rate of speed.
I’m not even sure where to start with this idea that calls upon cyclists to be more conspicuous. I’m certainly not arguing against riding with lights after dark, nor am I questioning people’s interest in gear like high vis apparel and daytime running lights. But this idea that folks riding bikes need to wear specialized clothing so motorists don’t hit them, especially when so many other dangerous driver behaviors and issues are being overlooked, is an insult to the perils American cyclists face every day. Like if you think I need to wear fluoro kit or a blinking vest because it’s just too challenging to see me on the road, maybe you should stow your iPhone or slow down or altogether reconsider driving a motor vehicle.
When combined with these two exercises in victim blaming, the NTSB’s missives speaking directly to cyclists—about observing signals and rules—speak volumes about the lens with which the agency is viewing the issues. The collective message is that riders often are naughty and need to take greater responsibility for their own safety. Instead of seeing what cyclists really are—the victims of systemic problems that desperately need fixing—the NTSB frames riders as the agents of their own demise. This is the essence of victim blaming.
Now let’s talk about all the important stuff that the NTSB report passed over to focus on helmets and high vis and scold renegade riders. Like the problem of distracted driving—where four in 10 motorists admit using social media (and one in 10 say they watch YouTube videos) on their phone when they’re on the road. Or the nation’s pernicious problem with speed limit violations, a widely tolerated illegal behavior that is a known killer. They could urge the auto industry and tech sectors to work together to solve these entirely fixable problems. They could ask out loud how or why many states still don’t have 3-foot safe-passing laws or regulations banning handheld phone use, and how or why these laws are rarely enforced in those that do. They could demand that American trucks and passenger cars match the far superior standards set in Europe and Japan to keep vulnerable road users safe—why don’t our garbage and box trucks have side guards to protect pedestrians and cyclists from the wheels, for instance? They could address an epidemic of fatal hit-and-run crashes and the shifting complexion of impaired driving and America’s love affair with 5,000-pound SUVs. Rather than scold naughty cyclists, agency researchers could have examined the carnage caused by negligent and reckless motorists—and offered commentary on what to do about it.
In short, the NTSB could have focused its report on more of the things that are actually killing cyclists. Instead, the organization tasked with troubleshooting transportation disasters left us with a train wreck. Rather than use its considerable muscle and resources to increase public and congressional awareness about the cultural and systemic forces that are causing record numbers of riders to die, the agency took the laziest possible look at the issues, merely repeating stereotypes and tropes and naïve assumptions in a manner that actually makes cyclists less safe.