10:13 AM

Bicycling Injuries Increasing, Especially Among Older Adults

Experts advise on how to stay safe while enjoying the health benefits of cycling.

More Americans are reaping health benefits from bicycling as the nation’s cities have become more bike friendly. But a report published in the Sept. 1 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) shows that bike injuries are on the rise, especially among Americans ages 45 and up.

Several factors are driving this trend, which serves as a reminder to follow safety precautions when bicycling, Shepherd Center experts say.

The JAMA study found a 28 percent increase in the number of bicycling injuries in the United States from 1998 to 2013. Even more significant was the number of injuries requiring hospitalization; that jumped by 120 percent.

One factor that may be contributing to the increase in injuries is a 61 percent increase in the number of Americans commuting to work by bike between 2000 and 2012, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics. But other factors are at play, as well, said Emma Harrington, director of Injury Prevention and Education at Shepherd Center.

“Distractions for drivers are up, so there’s a decreased awareness among motorists of what’s on the road,” she said.

The study also showed that cyclists 45 and up are bearing the brunt of the injuries. This age group had an 81 percent increase in the number of injuries overall and a 66 percent increase in the number requiring hospitalization. These numbers could stem from an increase in the number of bicyclists in this age group, the authors said.

Bert Spetzler, M.D., was an avid cyclist before a life-changing accident near his home in Roanoke, Va., in October 2008. He was 58 at the time.

An orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Spetzler was beginning his short ride to work when he lost control of his bike on his steep driveway because his equipment failed. He hit his head as he was careening down an embankment and woke up in a creek bed.

“I remember looking up at the sky,” Dr. Spetzler recalled. “It was a beautiful October day. I was lying there with water up to my ears. I couldn’t move anything, and my bike was on top of me.”

“It was obvious to me immediately what my injuries were; it was surreal,” he said. “I couldn’t do anything about it. You can’t take back the moment.”

After nearly a week in a local hospital, he moved to Shepherd Center for ten weeks of rehabilitation for a C-4 to -5 spinal cord injury.

“Some of the most damaging injuries are spinal cord and brain injuries,” Harrington said. “It changes everything. If you survive it, you have to rework your life.”

Older adults may be bearing more serious injuries related to bicycling because their bodies aren’t as resilient as they once were, Harrington said. But there are significant health benefits associated with riding a bike, as well as benefits to the environment, so Harrington suggested a few things riders can do to increase their safety.

  • Always wear a helmet, no matter how short the trip.

  • Make sure the helmet is new and doesn’t have any serious dents in it.

  • Wear light-colored clothing, reflective gear, and use lights at night.

  • Don’t drink and ride.

  • Respect the rules of the road.

Dr. Spetzler has two tips to add: Always make sure your equipment is in tip-top shape and always be aware of your surroundings.

“With a bike, it doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong because when an accident with a vehicle occurs, you’re the weaker of the two vehicles,” Dr. Spetzler said.

Since his accident, Dr. Spetzler’s life has definitely changed. He’s no longer able to perform surgery, so he now teaches medical students and does disability evaluations. But if he could ride, would he get on a bike again? You bet.

“Cycling can be very safe,” he said. “If I could, I’d be back on a bike tomorrow. It gives you a sense of freedom.”

For more information on Shepherd Center’s Injury Prevention Program, visit

Written by David Terraso

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.