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Interest in bicycling is unlikely to slow in the next decade, especially while we search for ways to cut fuel consumption, and to devote more and more time to both outdoor leisure and physical exercise. Americans who already own bicycles are likely to increase the number of miles they ride, and many others are expected to take up the activity. Neither bicyclists nor motorists are prepared for this sudden mix on highways designed largely for a single mode of travel. Action by planners, law enforcement officials, educators, legislators  and organizations is needed to help reduce the number of injuries.

This report has been prepared for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration by a large bicycling organization, Bikecentennial, in order to help identify how and why many adult bicycle accidents take place. This report not only outlines new data from observing 4,065 bicyclists during the summer of 1976, but also blends the knowledge of two professional bicyclists/bike planners in an interpretation of that data. By sharing this added perspective on bicycling accidents we hope to aid in your efforts to improve facilities, laws, enforcement, and education programs.


Bicycle accident data is elusive. Very few of the 80-100 million men, women or children riding bicycles are able to give an accurate account of the miles or hours spent riding their bikes. Most accidents are of a minor nature and hence go unreported. Even the few reports that make their way to insurance, hospital, or police files are often brief and inadequate. Most accident forms are too general in nature to give an accurate picture of the incident, and investigators are rarely trained in bike accident causation. Many statements simply read, "rider fell while making turn." Little consideration is given to highway design, debris, other traffic, the rider's experience level, and other important factors.

This study examines the riding habits, attitudes, exposure, and equipment of a known group of mostly adult bicyclists and takes into account the design of the 4,200 miles of Class III (shared highway) bikeways they rode during the summer season. It is the first known study that can relate actual exposure in miles and hours to an accurate count of total accidents. Perhaps even more important, it not only presents a profile of men and women having accidents, but also contrasts that group with others who rode without accidents. This is one of the first bicycling studies with such a built-in control group. Through this investigation we have been able to determine base rates of accidents per million miles ridden by accident type.

Background History.

During the summer of 1976, 4,065 men and women from around the United States and 16 other nations joined together to participate in the inauguration of the longest recreation trail in the world, the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail. Almost half (44%) of these bicyclists rode the entire 4,200 mile trail from Oregon to Virginia.

The idea behind the TransAmerica Trail was to find a good cross-country route on existing back roads which were already maintained and would require no further development costs to be used for bicycle travel. The route would follow country roads and lightly traveled state highways as much as possible. The quiet back roads would encourage an intimacy with the land that wide, noisy highways could never allow. The trail avoids large urban areas almost entirely.

About 80% of the riders traveled in small groups of 8-12 riders. Although these men and women often rode in even smaller groups (usually two riders together), they had the benefit of sharing their experience with the entire group in the evenings and had the aid of a trained leader. The remaining 20% of the riders traveled independently, and usually teamed up with one or more other independent or group riders during the day. Tours lasted anywhere from 12-82 days, covering 350 to 4,200 miles. Some bicyclists carried their equipment in saddlebags and handlebar bags, while others relied on trucks to carry their gear.

Cyclists taking part in Bikecentennial were well-educated urbanites whose families had middle income salaries. Roughly 45% of the riders were either students or educators. Men outnumbered women 3:1 on the long trips, and 2:1 on the short trips. Only 30% of the riders had toured any appreciable distance on a bicycle before (700 total touring miles). The average Bikecentennial rider had been bicycling for 3.5 years. During fair weather, these men and women put in an average of 250 miles per month. (The majority of the riding (78.2%) is for one-day rides.) Slightly more than half of the riders used their bikes for commuting (58.6%), regular exercise (61.0%), and minor shopping trips (56.8%).

Each of the riders was issued maps and guidebooks and a health/accident insurance policy. They received publications in advance discussing conditioning, equipment selection, bicycling hazards and riding techniques. In addition, most riders went through an orientation session at the trailheads, during which common accidents and hazards were discussed.

The route these bicyclists traveled was carefully chosen not only for scenic and cultural interest, but for safety as well. In most regions traffic counts were between 200-1000 ADT (Average Daily Traffic Count). About 25-35% of the trail was under 500 ADT. On approaches to large towns such as Pueblo, Colorado, and in some sections of Wyoming, counts climbed to 1200 ADT or higher.

One of the goals of Bikecentennial was to encourage the shift of long-distance bicycle travel onto specific roadways lighter in traffic, and then to work toward the elimination of hazards on these roads through local, state, and federal agencies. By focusing on a major transcontinental route during the bicentennial year, it was possible to rally enough support to get the 4,200 mile route developed in the brief span of three years. The success of this trail has already served as an inspiration to others, helping foster similar routes through California, Washington, Oregon, the Northeast, and North Carolina.


The specific objective of this report is to provide new ideas and data on bicycling safety. After poring over the mounds of data, interviews, tables, charts, and summaries, we have chosen to make an informal presentation. Our statements are based not only on fact, but on our years of experience as well. We feel that the most value can be offered by this writing if we interject the perspective of the active bicyclist. By doing this we are able to leave behind the cold world of statistics and relate more clearly just why bicycling accidents take place. Many studies on bicycling accidents fail to take into account such things as the different attitudes bicyclists have toward traffic and roadways, the limitations of the equipment they ride and design of the roadways they share.

We are sticking our necks out a bit to suggest fresh ideas that should be tried. We feel that the art of bicycle safety is developing too slowly. Very few funds have been earmarked for either research or programs. Blame for accidents is passed from manufacturers, to educators, to highway designers, to motorists, and to the bicyclists themselves. In reality, the problem and the solution must be placed squarely on each of our shoulders. The dominant purpose of this report is to get each and every one of us to accept this responsibility.

To help meet this responsibility this report outlines existing and new data related to bicycling safety, including but not limited to:

  • Identification of hazards
  • Relation of roadway design, maintenance, riding habits, motorist behavior, and education to frequency of bicycling accidents
  • Importance of signing and law enforcement
  • List of major design and maintenance hazards
  • Bicycle, and accessory design and use
  • Equipment
  • Motor vehicle design and operation
  • Rules of the road

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