During a quest for "hard numbers" on mountain bike casualties for my new mountain bike book -- a futile quest so far, I'm happy to report -- I found myself at the CDC's WISQARS database. WISQARS stands for Womens' International Secret Quillting and Re-upholstery Society. What, you don't believe? WISQARS* is basically no help whatsoever in providing my MTB stats, but since it looks at these things from a slightly different angle than the oft-quoted NHTSA FARS database, comparing the two can be interesting. The first thing we'll want to check is if the two data sets contradict each other, as is often the case with competing agencies.

The latest year for mortality reports on the WISQARS database is 2007, so we're talking all 2007 numbers here. Let's break it down:

UNKNOWN ... Total number of pedalcyclist injuries, including superificial boo-boos, is unknown and unknowable, but must be on the order of several million annually in the United States.

495,500 ... Estimated total pedalcyclist ER visits nationwide in 2007, according to WISQARS. These are classified on the site as transportation-related injuries, but some are off-road, kids' wrecks, etc. WISQARS gets these non-fatal injury numbers from the CPSC's National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS). Note that NEISS estimates an additional half-million seeking outpatient care each year. WISQARS doesn't let us break these injury numbers down into motor-vehicle- or non-MV -related crashes, unfortunately. There are no FARS (Fatality Analysis Recording System) injury numbers, of course.

24,935 ... Estimated number among injured who were transferred or hospitalized, according to WISQARS/NEISS. This is a solid way to track serious injuries. Only 5% or so of cyclist ER patients ended up admitted to the hospital.

820 ... Total number of pedalcyclist fatalities (motor vehicle-related plus non-motor-vehicle related) on the WISQARS database, which is based on death certificates.

701 ... Total pedalcyclist fatalities on the FARS database.

As you can see, there's quite a difference between these two WISQARS and FARS numbers, but they can be reconciled. The FARS number, the figure that appears in all the charts and gets repeated among advocates, is neither the number of total pedalcyclist fatalities nor the number of cyclists killed in traffic accidents, as is commonly believed. It seems to be the number of pedalcyclist fatalities that are recorded in police reports across the country. This would (I presume) include all the motor-vehicle-related deaths, plus a number of fatal solo crashes and other types of incidents, on-street and perhaps elsewhere, to which the police happened to respond.

578 ... Motor-vehicle-related pedalcyclist fatalities according to WISQARS. This is really the most important number that green transport and safety advocates should be tracking, but which is universally ignored. That leaves ...

242 ... Total non-MV-related deaths according to WISQARS. Deadly potholes and rails, kids hitting their heads, heart attacks while cycling, I'm sure there's a lot of crazy stuff included in there. Tragedies -- nobody deserves to die from riding a bike around. That non-MV crashes caused almost one third of all fatalities, and that 90% of these non-MV fatalities were suffered by riders 16 and older, are to me the most eye-opening aspects of these numbers. This is something we learn from WISQARS. In FARS, 82% of fatal incidents involve collisions with cars. In WISQARS only 70% involve cars. Unless the CDC has mistakenly added 119 extra pedalcyclist fatalities to its database, WISQARS provides the right number. Of these 242 non-MV deaths ...

123 ... Showed up in police reports (FARS minus 578).

119 ... Did not show up in any police report (FARS), but were tallied by WISQARS (WISQARS minus FARS).

My long lost mountain bike numbers are included somewhere in those 242, presumably. Maybe. Or maybe not. There's really no way to be sure, which is fine with me.

It's important to take age into account when considering any bicycling accident statistics. So let's do it.

267,179 ... ER visits by pedalcyclists 15 and under, according to WISQARS. That's an amazingly large portion of all ER visits, well over half.

8,219 ... kid bicyclists under 16 admitted to the hospital with serious injuries, WISQARS. Roughly one third of all serious injuries.

118 ... Total number of pedalcyclist fatalities involving children 15 and under according to WISQARS -- about 15% of total fatalities.

23 ... The number of these fatalities that did not involve a motor vehicle, according to WISQARS. A shockingly small number to those who have studied bike statistics, less than one tenth of all non-MV pedalcyclist fatalities. Which leaves ...

95 ... motor-vehicle-related fatalities to pedalcyclists 15 and under, representing less than one fifth of all motor-vehicle-related pedalcyclist fatalities.

Now, the FARS number for kids, from police reports, should include all 95 of those, plus, we would expect, some non-MV crashes with police response. Indeed the FARS number is:

107 ... Total pedalcyclist fatalities involving children 15 and under on the FARS database.

Remember, these are all annual tallies for the year 2007.

As you can see, the WISQARS and FARS data sets don't seem to contradict each other at all, so no fun to be had there, unfortunately. But the FARS figure is significantly lower than the one given by WISQARS, a fact which has gone pretty much unnoticed.

If I ever come to a violent end while riding my bike like the poor souls represented in the red numbers above, and thus become a little red number myself, which is entirely possible, tell 'em I was doing one of those things that I love to do.

 

*Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System.

 

For more on this subject see the I.C. BICYCLING RESEARCH PAGE, and chapters in my books The Cyclist's Manifesto and The Art of [Urban] Cycling.

Contact Robert Hurst: Robert@industrializedcyclist dot com.