Cycling crashes increasing in number and severity

August 8, 2014

This summer I’ve seen at least three bicycle crashes. That means bicycles and riders down at ground level when they didn’t mean to be at ground level.

One of those involved an ambulance ride for a young lady who went over her handlebars as she was coming down the sidewalk on the beach side of the Savannah Road drawbridge in Lewes. When I came upon the scene she was down beside her fallen bicycle, her head resting on a folded-up beach towel that some kind soul had put between her and the curb, the siren of an ambulance approaching from uptown. I’m guessing she started moving downhill more quickly than was comfortable for her and squeezed the left brake, on her front wheel. That’s when the trouble started. But it’s only a guess.

What I am certain about is the fact that she is among the 62 cyclists treated at Beebe Healthcare’s emergency department between Jan. 1 and the end of July this year. Given the opening of the new Gordons Pond Trail and a marked increase in the number of cyclists in Lewes and Rehoboth Beach and points in between, I expected this year’s numbers to be much greater than last year’s. But a check with Beebe’s public relations department revealed that number has only increased from 60 last year. Broken down by month, that doesn’t seem like that many crashes.

But Dr. Paul Cowan, director of emergency services at Beebe, set me straight. “You have to remember, not many people are cycling for many of those months between January and July. Those 62 people we’ve treated probably all came in the two or two and a half months when the weather turned nice,” said Cowan. Looking at it from Cowan’s point of view, that’s almost a cycling crash needing medical attention every day. And that doesn’t count the people who crash but don’t come in for treatment. “Bicycle safety is a big issue, especially around here. It’s gotten so bicycle injuries are like surf injuries. We’re used to seeing them. They’re fairly commonplace. But they can be very serious.”

Two primary factors in play

Cowan believes bicycle crashes result primarily from two factors: the first is that many cyclists on local roads are visitors who may only ride a bicycle a week or two or a day or two a year. “They’re not the most skilled riders,” he said. “And they’re riding in many cases on roads not designed for cyclists. Put that together with the second factor - drivers not used to the local roads who often get frustrated by congestion and inexperienced cyclists - and it all adds up to a risky situation.”

Cowan also mentioned helmet behavior as a contributor to some of the more serious cycling accidents. “Every kid wears a helmet these days, and lots of 25-year-olds too. They’ve grown up with them. But there are many retirees out there not wearing helmets. Helmets aren’t part of their culture. You have to remember, we [in the emergency room] can fix many things, but we can’t fix your head. Head injuries can damage the brain, and the brain doesn’t heal like the rest of the body. It’s the same thing the NFL is starting to understand about concussions. When a cyclist crashes with a car, injury to the brain is very likely,” said Cowan.

He also threw in another factor that’s especially prevalent in our area. “Lots of older people are riding bicycles. Many of them have suffered heart attacks or strokes and are on blood thinners for good medical reasons. But when those people crash and injure their heads, the trauma can be a big deal. The bleeding can get severe inside the head, which squeezes the brain. It’s called intracranial hemorrhaging, which is a life-threatening issue. It has to be relieved. We transfer those patients to Christiana Care to see a neurosurgeon.”

Translation: it’s very important to wear a helmet. When we were out west last summer, I saw a sign on the wall of one bicycle shop: “If only all the tough decisions were as easy as whether to wear a helmet.”

Cowan said another situation in our area leading to crashes is when cyclists riding on the shoulders are making headway faster than the cars beside them. “It’s one thing when a car going faster than a bicycle pulls over in front of a rider. That’s usually a miss. But when the cyclist is traveling faster than a car, a frustrated driver who suddenly pulls over to the shoulder can end up with a crash. We hear that quite a bit when patients tell us what happened.”

We know who loses in those situations.

Cowan, repeating what many people who drive in the Lewes area already believe, said cyclists coming off the Junction and Breakwater Trail at the Lewes end who turn right onto Gills Neck Road to ride into town are a real problem. “That’s a tragedy waiting to happen,” he said.