Police Reports Are Failing Cyclists. Here's the Proof

injured cyclist sitting in pain next to the racing bicycle
Police Reports Are Failing Cyclists. Here's Proof.SimonSkafar - Getty Images

According to a recent study done at York University in Toronto, there’s a major discrepancy between the injuries being reported by cyclists and pedestrians and the injuries those populations are actually sustaining.

The findings hinge on the fact that those figures are taken from data provided by Toronto police. That is, reported accidents, incidents, and injuries. What the study—which was authored by York University professor of kinesiology and health sciences Dr. Alison Macpherson—showed is that injury rates amongst cyclists and pedestrians are significantly higher when hospital records are factored in.

Per the study, which examined a five-year stretch from 2016 to 2021, Toronto police data showed 2,362 injuries suffered by cyclists and pedestrians across the city. Meanwhile, the city’s health services data showed 30,101 emergency room visits by cyclists and pedestrians. By examining police data alone, the report says, we’d only be looking at around 8 percent of emergency room visits.

The study, which was published in the journal Injury Prevention, realized that the largest discrepancy came amongst cyclists who were treated in the city’s emergency rooms, with police data capturing a mere 7.9 percent of all cycling injuries.

It also noted that cycling injuries that didn’t involve a motor vehicle saw a significant increase from the start of the pandemic. Cyclists who suffered such injuries and visited emergency rooms rose from 3,629 reported incidences in 2019 to 5,459 incidences in 2020. Meanwhile, 251 patients were admitted to city hospitals in 219 while 2020 saw 430 admissions.

According to the study, “the results suggest that using police data alone when planning for road safety is inadequate, and that linkage with other health service data is essential.”

It also notes that studies done around the world, including in Europe, Australia, Quebec, and the United States, have also indicated consistent discrepancies between the data provided by police departments and by health providers.

One study that examined these discrepancies in Orange County, California found that underreporting by police was “conservatively estimated at 20 percent for pedestrians and 10 percent for bicyclists.”

That study’s abstract posited that “the police injury severity scale was found to correlate poorly with a scale based on medical diagnoses, and substantial underreporting by police of serious injuries was demonstrated.”

While it’s hardly news that cyclist and pedestrian injuries and deaths have seen dramatic increases over the last few years, and that American roadways are more dangerous to cyclists than ever before, it’s sobering to read a report that states we might not even know the half of it.

And while many cities and states are taking measures to make roads safer for non-motorized transportation—such as banning rights on red or building more and safer cycling infrastructure—it certainly seems like common sense for them to be building these laws from a foundation of accurate statistical evidence. Or, as Dr. Macpherson’s study suggests, ignore as holistic of a dataset as possible “can lead to inaccurate evaluation of injuries both in terms of burden and changes over time.”

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