“Bicycle crash #5” by fsiddi is licensed under CC BY 2.0

On Feb 23, a 9-year-old girl riding a bicycle in San Jose was injured in an auto collision. A few weeks later, the same thing happened to an 11-year-old boy in Santa Clara. Then a few more 11-year-olds in Los Gatos and Mountain View in April. What do these incidents have in common? Nobody who looks at California traffic records can know if these kids were wearing safety helmets.

Bicyclists get hit by cars twice a day in Santa Clara County, the South Bay community that includes San Jose and Silicon Valley. Many of these incidents involve kids who are less than 18 years old. This is a big public safety issue.

First, bicyclists almost never walk away from an auto collision without injuries. In the first half of 2016, 320 auto collisions involving bicycles resulted in 301 injuries and 2 deaths, according to California Highway Patrol’s (CHP’s) Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System. During the same period, there were about 2 injuries for every 5 auto collisions involving other motor vehicles.

Second, the number of bicycle injuries and fatalities across California has been rising. Injuries were up 10 percent over the latest five-year period reported by CHP, from 2009 to 2013. Fatalities were up 53 percent.

Third, the San Jose area has a history of injuries and deaths involving cyclists who were riding without safety helmets. In 2013, the latest year that has been fully analyzed by CHP, there were 341 reported bicyclist injuries in auto collisions and only 19 incidents where police noted that the bicyclist was wearing a safety helmet. There’s no record of a safety helmet being worn in any of the five bicyclist fatalities in San Jose reported that year.

The point here is not to blame the victims. We all know that it’s safer to ride a bike if you’re wearing a helmet, but very few people are paying attention to the latest data on auto collisions involving bicycles. People don’t have a clear idea about how many bicyclists are struck by cars in their community and whether the community is getting across the message that people are far more likely to escape serious injury if they are wearing a helmet.

Police and public officials need to do a better job of communicating safety risks using the latest public information. They must also do a better job of collecting and reporting data on bicycle injuries. State records on safety helmet usage are simply not reliable.

Here’s what we learned when we searched all 8,528 auto collision records in Santa Clara County from the first half of 2016, looking for collisions involving bicycles.

  • Although CHP reported 301 injuries and 2 deaths in a summary report that we obtained last month, we found 368 injuries and 3 deaths in the records.
  • For 213 of these incidents, there’s no clear indication if the bicyclist was wearing a helmet. Police officers mark traffic reports with codes indicating the types of safety equipment used by people involved in auto collisions. The letters W and Y indicate that a bicyclist was wearing a safety helmet. The letters V and X indicate no helmet. In 155 records, officers provided no safety equipment code. In 17 records, officers provided no details about the extent of the bicyclists’ injuries at all. In 33 records, officers marked safety code P, suggesting no safety equipment was required for the bicyclist. And in 8 records, officers marked a safety code that doesn’t apply to bicyclists, such as A, indicating that no safety equipment was found inside the vehicle.
  • Thirty-six of the incidents where there’s no indication if the bicyclist was wearing a helmet involved kids who are less than 18 years old.
  • Police reported safety helmets worn by 100 bicyclists involved in auto collisions.
  • Police reported that 58 bicyclists involved in auto collisions were not wearing helmets.

This post is part of a GJEL series called San Jose by the Numbers. Visit CHP’s Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System to access any of the data used in this post. And check back with CHP in August, when the agency will make available a full year of data on auto collisions in 2016.