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We have chosen to emphasize motor vehicle/bike accidents because the potential for extended injury and the added problems of shared highway use are serious concerns. Our investigation showed that an unusually high number of motor vehicle-related accidents go unreported, especially the incidents where a motorist crowded a cyclist off the road. Motor vehicle-related accidents caused both deaths along the trail and a higher percentage (10%) of injuries requiring treatment beyond first aid. Motor vehicle-related accidents introduce another element to the safety issue--many motorists are unfamiliar with how to respond to non-motorized vehicles. In this section we discuss each of these issues and suggest ways of improving the present situation.

Rate of Motor Vehicle/Bike Accidents.

Motor vehicles were involved in 54 of the 308 documented accidents (17.5%) or an average of 5.20 accident victims per million miles traveled. Of the bicyclists involved, 45.8% reported being frightened, blown, or brushed off the roadway. The other 54.2% of the accidents involved a motor vehicle hitting a bike (24 cases), a bike hitting a parked car (5 cases), or a bicyclist running into moving car (3 cases).

Type of Involvement.

A) Overtaking Motor Vehicle. Most bicyclists have a fear of being hit from behind by an overtaking vehicle. Although only eight such accidents were reported on the trail (2.6% of accidents), each was quite serious. Both deaths and four other injuries leading to permanent disabilities were the result of accidents with overtaking vehicles. Likewise, many motorists are concerned with the safest means of passing a bicyclist and sometimes pass with nervous concern. On open highways, where the closing speed is often40-SO mph, overtaking accidents are a serious threat.

B) Hit from the Side. A similar number of bicyclists (eight, or 2.6%) were hit from the side. These accidents took place either at intersections or where the motorist made a turn into a driveway or entranceway. Although not as serious a threat, since the speeds are usually reduced, such incidents can also prove fatal.

C) Brushed by Car. This type of accident usually involved an indirect hit to the bike and rider hard enough to cause a fall. Eleven such accidents were reported, several resulting in serious injuries. Often the motorist was not aware of hitting the bicyclist, and continued on, perhaps narrowly missing other bicyclists further down the road. A few such incidents involved motorists who were attempting to frighten the bicyclist or simply did not wish to yield. One motorist was caught after having assaulted four bicyclists by punching them off the roadway by using his fist through an open window.

D) Blown Off Road. Fifteen bicyclists listed the cause of their accident as being blown off the roadway by a passing motor vehicle. In all but 3 cases the riders weighed under 150 pounds, and 60% of the incidents involved a semi-tractor trailer. A more serious related accident took place several weeks before a rider was to start the trail. A strong cross wind and passing truck created a suction that literally drew a Whittier, California rider beneath the wheels, leading to immediate death. Cyclists and motorists alike need to be alert to the very special risk of overtaking vehicles on windy days. A bicyclist learns to lean into a cross-wind that exceeds 15-20 mph. When a large vehicle (a car is large enough) suddenly blocks a cross-wind from the rider's left, the rider can literally fall beneath the wheels of the vehicle. Our limited study of suction and air blast accidents leads us to believe that additional research should be conducted, and specific warnings should be issued to both bicyclists and motorists. Professional truck drivers should be specially targeted to be informed of techniques for passing a bicycle.

E) Frightened Off Road. Thirteen accident victims were frightened or forced off the road by a passing motor vehicle. Several such incidents involved motorists traveling at a high rate of speed and sounding their horns at the last instant. Several serious falls resulted. In several instances the bicyclist became aware that the motorist was not going to yield and left the roadway to avoid a more serious injury.

F) Miscellaneous. Other motor vehicle/bicycle-related accidents of great potential threat were experienced. At least two bicyclists simply did not look to the rear and turned directly into the path of a passing vehicle. One girl in Yellowstone Park narrowly missed death when she made such a turn. The truck driver locked his brakes, skidded into the bike, and pushed the fallen bike and rider nearly 30 yards. The bicycle pannier locked in the truck's wheels, preventing the truck from riding over the bike and bicyclist. A second serious mishap occurred on a steep downhill when the rider lost control, entered the opposing traffic lane, and skidded beneath the chassis of a passing automobile. The bicyclist escaped with abrasions and minor lacerations.

Types of Vehicles. Although no record was kept of the percentage of motor vehicle types that used the trail, accident victims identified the following as involved in their accident:

Automobile 39.0%
Recreation Vehicle 9.0%
Pick-up Truck 12.0%
Semi Truck 20.0%
Other 17.5%

In general, because of the differences in traffic, truck-involved accidents took place during the normal work week, and automobile and RV accidents increased during the weekends.

Time of Day. Anticipating that motor vehicle accidents would increase dramatically after 4:00 PM because of dim light, glare, fatigue, increased traffic, and potential for drunken drivers, bicyclists were encouraged to be off the road as early in the day as possible. Most of the accidents that involved motor vehicles occurred in the afternoon, and rarely before 11:00 AM The only two exceptions involved coal trucks, at 8:00 AM and 9:00 AM.

Coal Trucks. One of the most hazardous areas of the trail was a band of roads through the coal seams of eastern Kentucky. Members of the coal industry, the Kentucky Highway Department, and others were involved in selecting the safest possible roadways. Nevertheless, at least two days of riding through very poorly maintained coal transport roads were necessary. Riders and truck drivers were asked to be on the alert and to help one another whenever possible. Many of the coal trucks were rated at 30 tons and they often carried even more. Drivers work against the clock to pay off their trucks, so delays on the road cut into the family's wage. Fortunately, most bicyclists and truck drivers, anticipating one another's needs, worked out a good plan for sharing the roads. Truck drivers used their CB messages to alert each other to the location of the bicyclists, and bicyclists, being alert to the sound of an approaching coal truck, usually dismounted and waved a friendly greeting as the trucker passed.

Unfortunately, not all accidents were avoided, but the majority of incidents were limited to a bicyclist's being forced off a roadway.

Intersections. Although the TransAmerica Trail is quite rural in design and had very few intersections, 13% of the accident victims reported that their most serious accident occurred at an intersection. This confirms the results of most other studies that investigate the importance of intersections and traffic conflict in the role of accidents. Our statistics show: the majority of the accidents that involved a bike hitting a moving or parked car occurred at an intersection; when an accident involved a motor vehicle collision at an intersection, the cyclist was most likely to be hit from the side; and thirty percent of all concussions and 20% of all fractures occurred at an intersection.

Location. Aside from incidents at intersections, the majority of motor vehicle-related accidents occurred in Wyoming, Kentucky, and Virginia. As discussed in a previous section, both Kentucky and Virginia have narrow, winding roads with no shoulders and poor visibility. Lush vegetation and steep hills can hide motor vehicles (or cyclists) until it is almost too late. In Wyoming heavy traffic, high winds, and lack of variety in terrain added to the hazards of shared use. These factors point out the extreme importance of blending good highway design with motorist and cyclist education, in order to reduce the risk of accidents. It was often the compounding of factors that led to serious accidents.

Vehicle Design and Accessories. Extension mirrors, commonly used when towing trailers, have long been a grave concern to bicyclists. Several bicyclists on the trail were hit by such mirrors, and one bicyclist who continued on his own after finishing the trail was critically injured by a passing vehicle's extension mirror. Other hazards include sharp ornaments or projections on cars that may cause a serious direct blow to the cyclist in the event of a collision. Manufacturers and motorists should be alert to the potential hazard these designs pose to the non-motorized traveler.

Fatalities. During the operation of the trail in 1976, two cyclists were killed, both as a result of motorists overtaking cyclists. The two victims, ironically, were members of the same group. One incident took place in Missouri, while the second happened in Montana. These states were listed as having the lowest rates of bicycling accidents. Our investigation of the accidents revealed the following:

  • Both accidents occurred in mid or late afternoon, on highways less than 25 feet wide, with no traffic, good visibility, on good pavement, and during good weather.
  • Both bicycles were demolished, the right side of the automobile windshields were shattered, and neither driver (male age 28, male age 35) was injured. Both were driving alone at the time of the accident. Details of the two accidents follow.

Particulars of Death of Female Cyclist. The female cyclist was the only woman in a group of male cyclists that constituted a TransAmerica camping group. The group was riding east to west and were approaching the town of Ash Grove, Missouri. Although the young woman had stated in her letter of application to Bikecentennial that she had always dreamed of riding a bicycle across the country, she had little experience in bicycle touring other than what she had gained in riding through Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois, and the eastern part of Missouri. Our reports indicate that the young woman was a source of friction among the other group members in that she was the slowest rider of them all. Consequently, she was always to be found at the rear of the group, followed only by the assistant leader or leader of the group. On the day of the accident, the young female cyclist was riding alone, behind the majority of her group. The leader of the group and another male cyclist (the cyclist later to be killed in Montana) had stopped behind the female cyclist for an ice-cream cone.

The roads in Missouri are well paved, providing good visibility for both bicyclists and motorists. Like other roads in that state, the road on which the accident occurred traversed rolling hills. The road surface was dry asphalt, the weather was clear, and the traffic was light. No other motor vehicle was in the vicinity of the accident when the collision occurred. The highway on which the victim was traveling in a southbound direction was in open country that had scattered residences. The accident occurred 0.6 mile north of the town of Ash Grove, Missouri.

At the time of the accident, the accident victim was proceeding up a long incline. The driver of the car involved in the collision stated that he was coming down a hill and saw a girl in the distance on a bicycle with heavy laden packs. He stated that the cyclist was moving slowly and her bicycle was moving from side to side. As he attempted to pass, the bicycle swerved into the auto. He indicated that he thought he had sufficient clearance to pass the cyclist, but just as he started to go by her, she swerved over and then started to swerve back to the right. The cyclist was thrown on to the hood and struck the windshield. The driver slowed to a stop so as not to throw her off the roof. The cyclist then fell off onto the grass on the shoulder of the highway. The automobile proceeded a short distance further before coming to a complete stop. The force of the collision broke out the top right corner of the windshield. Her head hit the top right corner of the windshield, but it was her shoulder that went into the windshield. The top of the roof line of the car made a very deep cut across the victim's right shoulder and down her back. She also had a hole in the back of her head. It was later determined that she also suffered lacerations about the head, shock, and a broken right arm and right leg. Cause of death was listed as four small heart attacks and a rapid loss of blood. It was determined that she had severed an artery in her right shoulder. The investigating officer reported that the collision was not a hard impact as the speed of the motorist was only 30 to 35 miles an hour. He speculated that the cyclist might not have died had she not hit the windshield and roof line of the automobile. First aid was administered to the victim by a hospital employee who attempted to stop bleeding by applying pressure. The person who was administering first aid stated that she had experience in treating this type of injury. The cyclist was never conscious in the investigating officer's presence and never regained consciousness before she died a couple of hours later.

It was determined that the motorist had tried to pass the cyclist while straddling the line in the middle of the highway. The right side of his car was three feet to the right of the center line. The area was designated as a passing zone. The vehicle that collided with the cyclist was a 1968 two-tone, two-door Dodge automobile. The bicycle belong to the female cyclist appeared to have been hit directly from behind. The seat stays, the chain stays, and the rear wheel were crushed directly toward. the front of the bicycle. Items such as cosmetics and other breakables that were located in the cyclist's panniers were also broken. The driver of the vehicle was issued a citation for careless and imprudent driving and improper passing.

A possible explanation of the cyclist's behavior, as reported by the motorist, could be as follows: after riding all day in the hot sun over "roller coaster" hills of Missouri, an exhausted female cyclist found herself at the limit of her endurance. Pedaling a fully loaded bicycle equipped for bicycle camping, she encountered the last long grade before reaching her destination for the evening. Although not out of control, her slow speed required that she consciously steer the bicycle underneath her to prevent a fall. A side-to-side motion would have given the cyclist a slight advantage over an upgrade by reducing the slope, much as a downhill skier traverses a downhill ski slope to reduce the grade or a sailboat tacks from left to right across a headwind. A combination of these movements and inadequate clearance allowed by the motorist resulted in the collision death of the female cyclist. We conclude that the responsibility for the accident belonged to both the motorist and the cyclist.

It is our recommendation that cyclists who operate heavy laden bicycles be aware of the potential for sideward movements on an upgrade. Adequate downgearing should be implemented before the bicycle begins such motion. Likewise, it should be brought to the attention of motorists that there exists a potential for underestimating the clearance that must be given a cyclist on the roadway.

The ironic conclusion to this case was that the driver of the automobile was acquitted of criminal charges because of a technicality. The judge who heard the case refused to let the police department enter evidence that the person charged with imprudent driving and improper passing was actually the driver of the automobile. The judge maintained that since the car was not occupied at the time the police arrived, no one could testify that the person charged was the driver.

Particulars of Death of Male Cyclist. The male cyclist who was a member of a TransAmerica camping group left the group in Fairplay, Colorado, and continued westward as a registered independent. Approximately two and a half miles outside of Dillon, Montana, this male cyclist was struck by a van and killed. Although no longer a member of a group, the cyclist had joined one other male cyclist in West Thumb in Yellowstone Park approximately one week before his death. Both cyclists were proceeding single file in a southwesterly direction into Dillon. The cyclist who was killed was the rear biker.

The male cyclist who was hit was 34 years of age and had previous bicycling experience. The deceased cyclist was known to be conscious about bicycle safety techniques and utilized these techniques on the roadway. He always wore a helmet, he rode in a straight line and close to the right-hand edge of the pavement,. and he always wore bright clothing. The cyclist was also wearing a fanny bumper (an orange triangle highly visible to the rear which indicates a slow-moving vehicle) around his waist. In addition, the panniers that he carried were red and so was the sleeping bag strapped to the top of the panniers.

At the coroner's court, the surviving cyclist stated that they were proceeding in a southwesterly direction about 50 to 100 yards apart at a. speed of 10 miles per hour. He indicated that the road that they were traveling upon was unmarked and had just been repaved. It lacked markings on the side or center of the road. The first cyclist stated that he was able to view the activities from behind through the use of a small rearview mirror attached to his glasses. He stated that he saw a van overtaking from the rear that appeared to be passing the second cyclist. He said it was in the middle of the road, entering the passing lane, while the second cyclist was off to the side of the road as usual. No other cars were in the vicinity. The first cyclist next recalled that he heard a noise that sounded like a shotgun going off and then a moan that sent him off the road into a ditch. Immediately afterward he saw the van pass. The first cyclist returned to the second cyclist who was lying off to the side of the road on his side and not moving. He stated that there were bicycle parts all over the road. He called the cyclist's name but there was no response. At that time the first cyclist left to summon help. He later recalled that the sun was in his eyes earlier as the two came into town; but as soon as the two cyclists entered the section of unmarked blacktop, the sun went behind the clouds so that they were in a shaded area.

The driver of the van testified that he had left Billings earlier in the day in a company van on route to Idaho Falls, Idaho. He testified that the vehicle was a 1976 Chevrolet Maxi Van that he had been driving for about four and a half hours that afternoon. The driver stated that he had consumed a beer for lunch but only a soft drink between that time and the time of the accident. He indicated that it was extremely hot in the van. and the ventilation was bad. Although he had indicated to the investigating officer at the scene of the accident that he might have been drowsing, he testified later that he was not. He was just exhausted and very hungry. His attention was on a fast-food restaurant up ahead in Dillon. Just as that thought went through his mind, the accident occurred. At first he thought that he had hit a trash barrel or a sign post, but after the sudden shock of the impact, he saw that he continued to be in the road. At that time he slowed down and went back to investigate what he had hit. He stated that he had not even noticed the bicyclists. Although the sun was coming in the front windshield, the driver of the vehicle did not wear sunglasses as they were not prescription and he could not see well enough with them. The driver of the vehicle recalled that it was partly cloudy and partly sunny. He did remember seeing the sun reflecting in the broken glass shortly after the accident but that it could have been cloudy at the time of the impact. He could not remember. He did recall that earlier he was fighting the sun a little bit and that the visor was down in the van most of the time. The driver rationalized his inability to see the cyclist as the result of sitting at a very high elevation in the van--when he looked off in the distance, he was not aware of the cyclists immediately in front of him.

As a result of the accident, the driver of the van was found unintentionally negligent. The bicyclist who was killed died of a broken neck and suffered other injuries.

The deceased cyclist had attended a week-long training course for Bikecentennial leaders earlier in the summer. He had traveled from Yorktown, Virginia, to western Montana. He took necessary precautions to be visible and rode in a responsible manner. He used bicycle safety equipment that included a helmet and a fanny bumper. He was traveling in a straight line approximately 12 inches from the right-hand edge of the pavement. There was no evidence that the bicyclist made any erratic movements immediately prior to the accident.

The driver of the van had been on the road the entire afternoon. The sun was in his eyes and he was hot and thirsty. His thoughts were directed to other matters than the roadway conditions..

This is a case where the two participants in an accident situation had a high degree of experience in operating their vehicles on the roadway. In the light of the facts that were presented at the Coroner's Court, we conclude that the bicyclist was not responsible for the accident. Further, that even experienced bicyclists are susceptible to chance conditions on the highway.

We recommend the following:

  1. That bicyclists be alerted to the potential for severe accidents even when all precautionary procedures have been taken."
  2. That cyclists be encouraged to incorporate their sense of hearing with safety devices such as rearview mirrors to aid in their perception of the location and closing rate of overtaking vehicles.
  3. That drivers of motor vehicles be continued to be made aware of safety precautions that include rest breaks in long trips, clean windshields for good visibility, and the necessity for glare reduction sunglasses when driving into the sun.


The motor vehicle is a part of the cyclist's environment over which he has limited control. There is little uniformity in how bicyclists or motorists approach one another for greatest safety. The relative difference in mass and speed between the 30-pound bicycle traveling at 15 mph and the-60,000-pound coal truck at twice or three times the speed should be of concern to everyone contemplating sharing such roadways. The development of sensitivity on the part of every highway user in understanding the other driver's problem is a must. As mentioned before, until the motorist is able to recognize the special problems confronting bicyclists and understands how best he may share the roadway, unavoidable accidents will continue. The cyclist who insists that the safest point on the road is always the center of his lane may one day learn the motorist too has a very special need to be understood. Loads may shift, windshields may be dirty, and the sudden recognition of a cyclist and opposing traffic may leave little chance to the driver to allow enough room. Attention to highway and route planning and increased understanding can reduce bike/motor vehicle accidents dramatically.

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