DETROIT — A government agency is recommending that all 50 states enact laws requiring bicyclists to wear helmets to stem an increase in bicycle deaths on U.S. roadways.
The recommendation was among several issued by the National Transportation Safety Board after a hearing Tuesday on bicycle safety. The agency says 857 bicyclists died in crashes with motor vehicles in the U.S. last year, a 6.3% increase over 2017. Bicycle deaths rose even though total road deaths fell 2.4%.
The NTSB also found that improved road designs to separate bicycle and vehicle traffic, and making bicyclists more visible through clothing, lights and technology would reduce the number of cyclist deaths.
The agency wrote in its report that head injuries are the leading cause of bicycle fatalities, and that use of a helmet is the most effective way for riders to reduce their chance of getting a serious head injury. Research shows fewer than half of bicyclists wear helmets, according to the NTSB.
“If we do not mitigate head injury for more bicyclists, additional bicyclists will die,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said.
Such a requirement may prove difficult politically. Currently no states require all bicyclists to wear helmets, but many require them for younger riders, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Nineteen states plus Washington, D.C., require motorcyclists to wear helmets, while 28 require them mainly for younger riders and three states have no requirement, the association said.
The NTSB also recommended that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration evaluate a car’s ability to avoid crashes with bicycles as part of the agency’s planned update of its five-star crash test ratings program. Collision avoidance technology, such as automatic emergency braking or pedestrian detection systems, could be modified to detect bicycles, the NTSB wrote in a report. The report said that delays by NHTSA in updating the new car ratings program “have likely slowed the development of important safety systems for vulnerable road users and their implementation into the vehicle fleet.”
NHTSA has said it plans a significant update to its automobile crash test ratings next year, and it will look at including new technology to make roads safer. The agency said it would study new test procedures and updates to its rating system for automobiles, as well as technology that will better protect pedestrians and bicyclists.
Also, slow progress by the Department of Transportation in developing standards for connected vehicle technology has delayed use of potential life-saving devices, the NTSB wrote.
The NTSB report said that one-quarter of all fatal collisions with bicycles happened as a motorist was overtaking a bicyclist on stretches of roads between intersections. Intersection crashes were more frequent, but crashes outside intersections often were fatal more often because vehicles tend to be traveling faster, the agency wrote.
The NTSB investigates crashes and makes recommendations in an effort to stop them from happening again. It last issued a report on bicycle safety in 1972.