Learning from better bicycle/vehicle crash reporting: Improving safety and infrastructure

By Mary Ebeling
A recent study published in the journal Injury Prevention makes a strong case for better bicycle/motor vehicle crash reporting as a way to improve bicycling safety. The quality of these crash reports currently varies widely, with helmet use and use of other protective equipment being the only data consistently recorded across all fifty states. Additionally, inadequate reporting that leaves out essential crash-site details results in a poor understanding of the causes and remedies for these crashes. This knowledge gap limits the ability of facility designers and transportation planners to respond with improved facilities for all road users.
For a sample dataset, researchers analyzed crash templates and 300 motor vehicle/bicycle crashes in NYC. The team considered impact points, crash patterns, and whether a cyclist was in or out of a bicycle-specific facility.
Until recently, officers investigating a crash entered data on paper forms with check boxes specifying crash details. Officers also add sketch drawings of the scene. As departments upgrade to newer technologies, it is increasingly common for police to have the ability to enter data for motor vehicle crashes using an on-board tablet that prompts the use of consistent categories. This system also allows for crash data to be automatically uploaded into a national database on crashes, allowing for a much higher level of analysis.
However, these tools and associated input codes do not currently exist for crashes involving a bicyclist or a pedestrian. Incorporating intuitive, drop down menus for bicycle/motor vehicle crashes will provide a dataset that will allow planners and designers to make tangible safety improvements for the growing number of bicyclists on the roadways. The report provides a sample of suggested input codes including: impact points—opened door, side mirrors; cyclist in or out of bike facility; visibility—driver saw bicyclist/bicyclist saw driver; available facility type —on/off street facility; lane; sharrow; cycle track.
Peter Flucke, a former police officer and owner of WE BIKE, etc.—a pedestrian and bicycle consulting firm specializing in the areas of engineering, education, and enforcement—notes that officers don’t receive detailed training in crash reporting generally, and training for bicycle crash investigation is even more limited. In addition to a standard set of options for recording these crashes he notes the importance of providing a mechanism for recording the results of a close inspection of the crash scene. This inspection could pick up on the differences in how roadway conditions affect bicycles compared to cars. For example, what seems like a small pothole that an auto tire might just roll over could require a cyclist to quickly steer around to avoid it throwing them off balance. The same is true for a seam in the pavement between the travel surface and the gutter. A record of these details, which can be essential elements of why and how a crash occurred, can help further improve the safety of the cycling environment.
Improvements to bicycle/motor vehicle crash reporting takes on a greater urgency since more people are biking for transportation.  The League of American Bicyclists reports the number of bicycle commuters increased almost 62 percent nationwide between 2000 and 2013.  For communities actively working to improve bicycle safety and the bicycle mode share, accurate data will provide crucial information to achieve their goals.
Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.