We often blog about current situations facing bicyclists in Chicago and around the country, but there's more to the story of bike safety than just recent issues. Today, we're turning the clock back and looking at the history of bikes and bike crashes. From the story of an industrious blacksmith in 1830s Scotland to the large-scale data collected about bike accidents in the United States today, here is our brief history of bicycle accidents.
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1800 - 1896: The Beginnings Of Bicycles
1839: A Scottish blacksmith puts pedal cranks on the back wheels of a "hobby horse" (a two-wheeled ancestor of the bicycle that had no pedals at the time). (Source: BBC/The British Museum: A History of the World series)
1842: Three years later, the blacksmith rode his invention on a 100-plus-mile trip to Glasgow. While in Glasgow, he collided with a pedestrian. This can be considered the first "bike accident," even though neither the blacksmith nor the pedestrian were hurt.
1868: Mass production of the bicycle begins.
1884: The first bicycle trip across the entire United States occurs.
1890: Due to advances in metallurgy that allowed the creation of small chains and sprockets, a new bicycle (called the Safety Bike) was created. The "safe" feature of the bike was two same-sized wheels, a move away from the "one large, one small" wheel design that was previously used.
1896: The first bicycle accident in the United States was also the first car accident in the country. It happened in 1896 when a car hit someone riding a bicycle (then known primarily as a pedalcycle).
1900-1974: Biking In The 20th Century
1900-1915: Bicycles continue to gain in popularity as designs and material improvements make riding easier.
1920: Bikes built specifically for children are introduced. This expands the number of people who ride bikes, but also exposes children to the dangers of bicycle accidents.
1932: This was the first year that official estimates about bicycle fatalities were produced. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that 350 bicyclists were killed that year.
1941-1945: Due to the rationing of gasoline and the increased need for metal to support the war effort, cars were not driven as much during World War II. As such, the use of bicycles grew. However, the scarcity of metal meant that new bicycles were a luxury.
1950-1959: In the decade immediately following World War II, bikes slightly lagged in popularity. This was due to the resurgence of car transit, which had been suppressed during the war.
1960-1975: Bikes begin to dramatically rise in popularity again. Demand for bikes was so high that a 1971 TIME magazine article noted that "there will be many a disappointed child this Christmas. The nation faces a serious bicycle shortage." TIME also referred to this general time period as "the biggest wave of popularity" that the bicycle had ever experienced.
1975 -Present: Bicyclists In Danger
1975: Along with the resurgence of bikes came an increase in the number of bicycle accidents. The mid-1970s in particular saw a large spike in bicycle accidents and bicycle-related fatalities, with 1975 remaining the deadliest year ever for bicyclists in the United States (1,003 fatalities). From 1975 onward, bicycle injuries have been, unfortunately, a daily part of life in the U.S.
1996: Illinois ranked 26th for bicycle fatalities (per million people in the population), despite ranking seventh in overall total bike-related fatalities (28).
2013: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that in 2013, nearly 500,000 emergency room visits were the result of bike-related injuries.
2014: Illinois had the sixth most bike-related fatalities in the nation (27) and accounted for nearly 4 percent of total bicyclists killed that year. (Source: NHTSA - 2014 Traffic Safety Facts)
2015: Between 2014 and 2015, fatalities in traffic crashes rose 7.2 percent. Bicycle accident fatalities outpaced even that large increase, as there was a 12.2 percent increase in the number of bicycle-related fatalities in traffic crashes in 2015.
A Final Note: Underreporting Is A Serious Problem
It is well-documented in both domestic and foreign research about bike injuries that the number of bike accidents is underreported. While the incidence of bike crashes and bicycle-related injuries has risen at a startling pace, remember that the history of bicycle accidents is even worse than the numbers above show.
The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) acknowledged this fact as far back as 1999. In a report on pedestrian and bicyclist injuries in which the DOT said it was difficult to draw consensus and reach definitive conclusions on many issues that led to these injuries, the agency WAS able to draw the conclusion that "official motor vehicle crash statistics have been shown to significantly underestimate the numbers of injured pedestrians and bicyclists."