Is Cycling in Europe Safer Than in the United States?

A Bike in the background of the US and EU flag superimposed on a wrecking ball.

Cycling has long been a popular mode of transportation and recreation in Europe, and its popularity has grown rapidly in the U.S.  Interestingly, there seems to be a widely held perception that cycling in Europe is significantly safer than in America.  Intuitively, that makes sense.  Across much of Europe, cycling is deeply ingrained in the local culture, and many cities have a robust cycling infrastructure; however, the same cannot be said for most of America.  In addition, cycling on the streets is accepted as the norm by European motorists.  In contrast, many motorists in America view bicyclists as obstacles that do not belong on the roads.


But is this perception of safety true?  It will likely surprise many, but compelling statistics suggest it is not. 


For instance, examining cycling deaths per million inhabitants in the European Union and the U.S. reveals that the fatality rate in the U.S. is in line with many of the countries in the E.U. by that metric.  According to the European Road Safety Observatory: Facts and Figures – Cyclists – 2021, from 2017 to 2019, Romania had 9.7 cyclist fatalities per million inhabitants, which ranked it as the most dangerous country in the E.U. Compare that with the U.S. over that time period based on extrapolating 2019 crash data and population, which results in a fatality rate of roughly 7.7. That puts the U.S. between Belgium (7.6) and the Netherlands (8.5). Of course, the number of bicycle trips and bicycle kilometers traveled to play a role in the fatality rate per inhabitant. Still, even so, the U.S. rate is not an extreme outlier as the perception of bicycling in the U.S. would suggest.    


Similarly, the number of annual cycling deaths does not support the perception that cycling in the U.S. is significantly more treacherous than in the E.U. Since 2010, the number of annual cycling deaths in the E.U. has fluctuated between 1,900 and 2,100.  In the U.S., that number has steadily increased from about 873 in 2011 to 1,260 in 2020, but that is still well behind the E.U.  Thus, there are nearly twice as many annual cycling deaths in the E.U. than in the U.S.. Still, the E.U. does not have twice the population of the U.S. – 447.7 million inhabitants in the E.U. versus 329.1 in the U.S.


Deaths per kilometer traveled is another statistic commonly used for comparison purposes.  Researchers compiled data on this statistic for the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. from 2004 to 2008.  The E.U. countries studied represent only 4 of the 27 total member nations.  Despite only a small fraction of the entire E.U., the four E.U. countries’ combined deaths per 100 million kilometers cycled totaled 13.1.  That is more than double the U.S. rate of 5.5 over the same time period.  Once again, the data does not support the perception that the E.U. is far safer for cyclists than the U.S.


These statistics do not conclusively prove that cycling in the U.S. is safer than in the E.U.  There are plenty of facts and figures that indicate the opposite is true.  But the foregoing discussion serves as a warning not to make sweeping characterizations. 


The E.U. is home to some of the safest and most welcoming cycling nations anywhere, such as the Netherlands, Sweden, and Germany. Still, it also includes some relatively inhospitable countries for cyclists, such as Romania, Poland, and Bulgaria. 


Similarly, in the U.S., there are states such as Massachusetts, Oregon, and Washington that are cycling meccas. Still, there are also states where bicyclists put their life at risk on every ride, such as Louisiana, Arizona, and especially Florida, which has the dubious distinction of being the longtime holder of the crown for being the deadliest state in the country for bicyclists.    

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