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Study Finds Cyclists Suffering More, Worse Injuries on Roads

By L. K. Regan

A study presented during the 2009 conference of the American College of Surgeons in Chicago reports on a troubling trend: doctors in Denver are seeing an increase in the number and severity of injuries to bicyclists.

The study collected data from Denver's Rocky Mountain Regional Trauma Center and Denver Health Medical Center. The researchers tracked the type of injuries and length of hospital stays for cyclists injured on Denver roads over the last 11 years. Researchers saw a 15 percent rise in chest injuries and a tripling of abdominal injuries over the last five years alone, all of which led to longer hospital stays over time. Perhaps the worst news was that, while rates of injury rose, helmet use did not: it remained flat over the course of the study, and among 329 injured cyclists, over a third had a significant head injury.

Lead researcher Dr. Jeffry Kashuk, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine (as well as senior attending surgeon at Denver Health Medical Center's trauma center), said in a news release that, "We're talking about injured spleens and livers, internal bleeding, rib fractures, and hemothorax [blood in the chest]. Those kinds of injuries are reflected by an increase in injury severity score." He pronounced himself "astounded" by the data.

The results were particularly shocking given the fact that Denver has more infrastructure for cyclists than many U.S. cities, where bike paths and designated lanes are typically rare. "Denver is very much a bicycle community," Kashuk said. "If we are seeing an increase in injuries in a metropolitan area that has fairly mature bike infrastructure from the standpoint of bike pathways, there's reason for concern about what's happening in metropolitan areas that don't have that level of maturity. There seems to be a significant increase nationally in the use of the bicycle for urban transportation. If our data is a microcosm of what is going on nationally, we may be on the cusp of an injury epidemic."

Kashuk and his fellow researchers at the University of Colorado would like to expand their research beyond Denver, to see what injury rates look like in places that are even less cyclist-friendly. Given the benefits of biking for cardiovascular health and environmental sustainability, Kashuk hopes that his research might help to push public policy in the direction of better infrastructure support for cyclists' safety. "Look at all the safety factors that have been incorporated in automobiles and streets and highways," Kashuk points out. "If even a percentage of that kind of investment went into safety vis-à-vis bike paths and community infrastructure, we would protect people from major injury."