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Exercise & Fitness
Bicycle injuries are mounting, especially in adults
- By Beverly Merz, Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch
For the past month, the Boston medical community has been mourning the death of Dr. Anita Kurmann, who was killed in a traffic accident while biking to work on a Friday morning. Dr. Kurmann, an endocrine surgeon, was completing a three-year fellowship at Boston University and Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. She had made great progress with coaxing stem cells to grow into thyroid tissue. Her bicycle has been painted white and chained to a post at the site where she died, one of several “ghost bikes” that commemorate other lives lost in a similar fashion.
It’s ironic that Dr. Kurmann lost her life doing one of the things that kept her fit and healthy. But, as a study described in this week’s Journal of the American Medical Association points out, cycling is becoming an increasingly risky activity. For the study, a team of researchers from the University of California, San Francisco examined data regarding hospital admissions for cycling injuries between 1998 and 2013. They found that the rate of people seeking treatment for bicycle injuries had risen 28%, from 96 to 123 per 100,000 — and the rate of injuries that sent people to the hospital had increased by 120%, growing from 5.1 to 11.2 per 100,000. Head injuries accounted for 16% of all injuries; torso injuries accounted for 17%. And the proportion of accidents on city streets had risen from 40% to 65% of all bicycle accidents. Moreover, it was people over 45 — not children or teens — who had the greatest increase in bicycle-related injuries.
Advice for city cyclists
Nicole Freedman is a former Olympic cyclist who has served as bicycle commissioner of Boston and is currently Chief of Active Transportation and Partnerships in Seattle. She says that cycling is still a fairly safe way to get around in the city, as long as riders are alert to potential hazards. Based on the kinds of accidents she’s seen, she has three pieces of advice:
- Stay clear of any trucks. “The last place you want to be is on the right of a truck,” she says. “If you find yourself in this situation, get up on the curb.” The greatest danger arises when a truck, especially an 18-wheeler or a flatbed, makes a right turn. A cyclist on the truck driver’s right may be in his or her blind spot, and it’s often impossible for a cyclist to see the truck’s turn signal flashing from this position. Dr. Kurmann was killed in one of these “right-hook” crashes.
- Be hyper-aware of your surroundings. You want to try to predict what trucks, cars, and pedestrians are going to do next. “Cycling on city streets is very different from a recreational ride on a designated bike path,” Freedman cautions.
- Give parked cars a wide berth. “Dooring,” in which cyclists are smacked by drivers opening car doors or injured trying to avoid a car door, is one of the most common causes of injuries in urban areas.
Everyday safety tips
Even if you’re cycling on a secluded country lane, it’s a good idea to follow these common-sense suggestions from the League of American Bicyclists:
- Protect yourself. Wear a properly fitted helmet and clothing with reflective fabric at night and in cloudy weather.
- Maintain your bike. Make sure your bike fits you and that it is fit for road conditions. Get a good light for night cycling.
- Learn and follow the rules of the road. Most states require bicyclists to follow the same rules as drivers of other vehicles. You can find the rules of the road for most states here.
- Communicate with those who share the road with you. Make eye contact and use hand signals to indicate what you’re about to do. The simplest gestures, like extending your right or left arm to signal a turn, can avert a collision.
For more detailed information on bike safety and all things cycling, check out the League’s website.
If you’d rather let someone else do the driving…
There’s a way to minimize your cycling risks even further — cycle inside a moving vehicle. Entrepreneurs have developed a way for you to get your cycling miles in, enjoy the landscape moving past, and leave the road worries to someone else. Buses equipped with stationary bikes have sprung up on both coasts and may be coming to a place near you sometime soon.
About the Author
Beverly Merz, Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles.
No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
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