In the present era of high gasoline prices and rising concerns about global warming, cycling continues to grow in popularity, not only as a form of recreation but as a way of commuting to school and work. There are now over 1 billion bicycles in the world today, according to Wikipedia. Connecticut, with its beautiful topography and scenic roadways, has long been especially popular with cyclists. Few people realize that one of the first bicycles was patented right here in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1866 by Pierre Lallement.

Like many other products, bicycles were originally made largely here in the United States by companies like Schwinn in Chicago. However, as cars became more popular in North America, many U.S. manufacturers faced dwindling sales and closed down. When increasing consciousness of physical fitness started in America in the late 1960’s many bicycles were imported from Britain, France and Italy, where bicycles never went out of style as a means of daily transportation. As time went on and cycling continued to gain in popularity new U.S. bicycle manufacturers arose, such as Cannondale, which is based in Bethel, Connecticut. These companies gained popularity and market share throughout the 1980s and 1990s, but now face growing competition from China, where more than 60% of the world’s bicycles are now being made.

Although bicycles remain extremely popular in the United States, and every state now treats cyclists as drivers of vehicles, most states have also developed special rules of the road for cyclists. In Connecticut cyclists are not allowed to use freeways, nor may they go on limited-access highways unless there are paths specifically provided for them. While many cities such as New Haven have developed bike lanes, specifically marked and spaced for cyclists, most of our roads require cyclists to use the same lanes as cars, often causing safety problems.

In an effort to promote bicycle safety we review data from the state department of transportation and other sources and make this available through local bike shops and our website. Some key points are highlighted here, but more complete information can be obtained by visiting the resource guide.

The first recorded automobile accident occurred in 1896 in New York City, when a car collided with a bicycle. More than 150 years later, in 2004, national statistics indicated that 725 bicyclists were killed in the United States and 540,000 more were injured in traffic accidents. There are now more than 85 million bike riders in America. Unfortunately, too many of these riders do not follow basic safety requirements, and 11.5% of all sports-related injuries involve a bicycle according to the National Sporting Goods Association. For this reason, the month of May has been declared National Bike Safety Month by the League of American Bicyclists.

The Bicycle Safety Institute indicates that 540,000 emergency room visits are the result of injuries caused by bicycle accidents. Head injuries account for approximately 67,000 of these visits. Despite these numbers, the great majority of bicycle accidents are never reported to the police, and go unrecorded. Connecticut is a beautiful state, but many of our streets are too crowded, especially during summertime. Our cyclists have to be extra cautious in order to avoid injury.

1. Wear a helmet!

While common sense indicates that you should always wear a helmet when riding a bicycle, we see people riding every day throughout New Haven without one. Even young children are permitted to ride around with a helmet. As a result, tragedies often occur. The U.S. Department of Transportation reports that 85% of bicyclists killed in 2002 were not wearing helmets. Although the CPSC asserts that wearing a bike helmet can reduce the risk of head injury by 85%, they report that 43% of bicycle riders never wear helmets. The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute estimates that 75% of bicycle-related fatalities among children could be prevented with a bicycle helmet. Similarly, Connecticut statistics indicate that head injury is the leading cause of death in bicycle crashes.

Children in Connecticut are most likely to die from bicycle crashes at nonintersection locations during the months of May to August and between the hours of 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. Nearly 60% of all childhood bicycle-related deaths occur on minor roads, with the typical accident occurring within one mile of the cyclist’s home. Bicycle helmets have been shown to reduce the risk of head injury by as much as 85% and the risk of a brain injury by 88%. No matter how short the trip, or how quite your neighborhood, never let a child ride a bicycle without a helmet!

Connecticut is one of 20 states which requires all children under age 16 to wear a helmet when riding a bicycle. When buying a helmet and putting it on keep in mind the following criteria:

  • The helmet should fit snugly and sit in a level position, with all straps buckled.
  • The helmet packaging should state that the helmet meets or exceeds the safety standards developed by American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) and/or the Snell Memorial Foundation.
  • Helmets are designed to protect against one significant fall or accident only, and may lose effectiveness after that. Replace old or worn helmets as well.
  • Helmet use among children decreases as they get older and is lowest among children ages 11 to 14. Buy a helmet that your child thinks is “cool” so that they are more apt to wear it and always stress that one accident is enough to ruin their lives forever.

2. Follow the rules of the road!

In Connecticut, cyclists must obey all traffic laws.

  • Ride on the right side of the road, with traffic.
  • Do not ride on the sidewalk, which is prohibited by many municipalities.
  • Use hand signals to alert motorists of the intention to turn.
  • Pay attention and follow traffic signals.
  • Never operate a bike after drinking alcohol. (The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety states that 24% of bicyclists killed in 2003 had a blood alcohol content (BAC) at or above 0.08 percent.)
  • Stop at all intersections, even if not marked, to make sure you can cross safely.
  • Adults should supervise children until age 10 whenever possible and direct them to bike paths and low traffic areas until they have completely mastered how to ride a bike and can follow the rules of the road.

If we all work together we can greatly reduce the frequency and severity of bicycle accidents in Connecticut. Bike helmets are cheap and cost between $15-$25. However, parents acting through their local schools and town governments can advocate for free helmets for those children that can not afford to buy one on their own. Studies have shown that every dollar spent on a bike helmet saves society $30 in direct medical costs to society. Reducing the number of accidents and injuries makes fiscal sense for every community in these times of sky-high medical care and underinsurance.

We have many resources to share on bicycle safety. Should you have any specific questions about bicycle safety or Connecticut law as it pertains to cyclists please feel free to contact our office at 203-776-4500 or send an email message. We are located in the heart of downtown New Haven at the corner of Whitney Avenue and Elm Street, just opposite the meeting point for the monthly Critical Mass bike ride on the New Haven Green.