A couple weeks ago as I was getting on my bike outside a cutesy art supply store in SE (no comment), an older woman stopped me and said, "Oh, I don't know how you do that! It's so dangerous!" I usually brush off these warnings, but this week OHSU docs published one of the first long-term studies of bike commuter injuries and their results are shocking: 20 percent of Portland bike commuters studied suffered some injury on their bike in a year, including five percent who had injuries serious enough to send the cyclist to the hospital.

Also surprising: Of the 962 commuters studied, the rate of injury was the same for advanced and beginning riders. Interesting.

I talked with Dr. John Mayberry, whose work during 15 years as a trauma surgeon in Portland for 15 years inspired him to perform the long-term study of bike injuries, about what his research means. Read the study online here.

MERC: Your study shows that over 20 percent of cyclists experience a "traumatic or serious" injury. What qualified as traumatic?
DR. MAYBERRY: You had to actually be injured. It could just be skinning your knee or spraining your ankle, but it couldn't just be a near miss. I think it was surprising, I think we were expecting less injuries. But it's a wide swath, the serious traumatic events where someone had to see a doctor were only five percent.

What can this study tell us about making biking safer?
We can only surmise this, but we can't prove it, but one of our major conclusions is that it's not the rider themselves who is dangerous, it's the environment. Maybe 10 years ago, if we'd done this study, we'd have found different results. But it could be that Portland's education infrastructure and cultural infrastructure is such that the most bang for your buck in injury prevention is building new facilities. What we did find is that poor roadway surfaces were a factor in 20 percent of serious events. Here's a very simple way to improve safety. It's not just enough to have the infrastructure but you need to maintain it.

Do most injuries happen in bike facilities? And what kind of injuries are most common?
Most of the traumatic events did occur in a bike lane or something like that, but that's because that's where most people bike. The most common injuries were upper body soft tissue damage—falling and either scraping or lacerating their arm or actually breaking a bone. Head injuries were much less common. We think that's because 95 percent of people in the study were wearing a helmet.

Do you have any data about what exactly caused the injuries? Like, what traffic situations?
We did ask people about that, but it's so much data that we're thinking of making it a second study. A lot of people are asking, 'Whose fault was it?' but you know, as we get into fault, that's more subjective and we're only asking one person involved whose fault it was. So we've kind of let that slide.

Will this dissuade people from biking in Portland? Looking at the numbers, it seems pretty dangerous.
I think it's possible it will, the 20 percent might dissuade people, but I think it's also important to know that there is a risk. I also think it might encourage people because people might say, 'It's risky for me, I'm a beginner.' But what this shows is that Portland's infrastructure is good enough that there's no difference in the likelihood of being injured depending on experience. Even if you're a beginner, you can get up and go.

H/T to BikePortland who wrote about this study in its infancy.