The Gorilla in the Room: One Cyclist Death Too Many

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Courtesy of PeopleForBikes.

Bike sharrow. Courtesy of PeopleForBikes.

Tim BlumenthalIn the pre-digital age, I would have been described as a broken record. That’s because every day, at least a half dozen times, I repeat the phrase, “When people ride bikes, great things happen.”

I say it in media interviews, sponsor pitches, and in pep talks during staff meetings here at PeopleForBikes headquarters.

This simple sentence neatly summarizes all the health, air quality, road congestion, business, and money-saving benefits of riding bikes. It helps explain why our organization exists. It’s a pure reflection of the smile in our red, white and blue logo.

PeopleForBikesLogo

But the truth is, not all outcomes of bicycling are positive. Far too many bike riders get injured (or worse) worldwide.

Just this morning (Oct. 2, 2013), we received gut-wrenching news from Belgium that professional cyclocross racer Amy Dombroski had been killed in a collision with a truck. Amy was a nationally respected and revered member of the competitive cycling community, and her death hits particularly close to home for us, as we would often see her smiling face while riding our local bike paths.

 Professional cyclocross racer Amy Dombroski's recent death is tragic news, as are the fatalities of the 600+ Americans killed every year in bike accidents. Photo courtesy PeopleForBikes.


Professional cyclocross racer Amy Dombroski’s recent death is tragic news, as are the fatalities of the 600+ Americans killed every year in bike accidents. Photo courtesy PeopleForBikes.

The problem is particularly glaring here in the United States, where bike injury and fatality rates are roughly 20 times those of the cycling-friendly countries of western Europe. In 2011, 672 Americans died in bicycle accidents—most of them in collisions with motor vehicles. Yes, this number is less than one ten-thousandth of one percent of the number of U.S. bike rides this year (more than four billion rides total). But I think we can all agree that not even one bicycling fatality is acceptable.

Despite all of its wonders, bicycling in America has a serious problem: safety. We don’t like to talk about it, and we struggle to improve it.

Our counterparts in the Netherlands and Denmark—arguably the two best bicycling nations in the world—advise us to work on making bicycling safer, but not talk about it publicly.

Talking directly and explicitly about safety, they say, is problematic because it reminds people that bicycling can be dangerous and it actually discourages some from riding. And where fewer people ride, motorists don’t expect to encounter people on bikes. The result is more dangerous riding conditions. It’s a vicious circle.

Courtesy of PeopleForBikes.

Courtesy of PeopleForBikes.

PeopleForBikes’ Approach

At PeopleForBikes, we’ve been working on bike safety since we launched 14 years ago. The process is daunting, solutions are elusive, and progress is very slow.

From our beginning, we’ve focused on improving infrastructure. We’ve invested close to $10 million in grants, lobbying, and support of national organizations and events that help build and improve better bike lanes, paths, trails, and parks. We pay close attention to creating seamless networks that are easy to follow from where you live and work to where you want to go. We have played a central role in increasing the federal investment in bike facilities, which totals $9 billion for 27,000 projects in the last 20 years.

Our outlook on infrastructure is a key reason we’ve prioritized our Green Lane Project for the last two years (and we will continue to do so in 2014 and 2015). It’s an effort to build and promote better bike lanes in cities. It emphasizes lanes that are separated and protected from motor vehicle traffic. While the number of these lanes has doubled nationwide in each of the last two years, there aren’t enough of them—yet.

For National Bike Month 2013, we produced a video called “Standoff.” Our goal was to spin the stereotypical story of anger and confrontation between drivers and riders to get everyone to recognize that we all share responsibilities on the road. We preached (badly needed) mutual respect and civility, and tried to do it with a touch of humor.

We’ve awarded bike safety educational grants that teach kids and adults to be skilled, predictable riders. We’ve supported the development of bike boulevards—lightly traveled city streets where speed limits are low and bike riding is promoted. We backed a rider/driver communication/cooperation effort organized by Stanford University.

During the last seven years, we’ve invested more than $1 million in the Safe Routes to School National Partnership. The improvements to safety that have been engineered by this very capable organization aren’t limited to school hours: they benefit everyone on bike and foot, all day, every day.

No matter what we (and our partners) do, the simple fact is that bike riding remains dangerous in too many places. Many factors seem nearly beyond our control.

  • Americans drive faster than the speed limit but rarely get ticketed.
  • Bike riders often fail to follow the rules of the road and sometimes ride unpredictably. This is more than a practical challenge to safe interaction with cars; it breeds mistrust and anger.
  • American drivers are often distracted. Hands-on cellphone use while driving remains legal in three dozen states. Texting while driving remains okay in 11 states. Again, violations in both categories are rarely enforced.
  • Some bike riders are holier-than-thou. Others react violently to every minor encounter on the road (as do many drivers. If you can tolerate salty language, take a look at this Louis C.K. video. You may laugh knowingly.)
  • When a moving 4,000-pound car hits a moving 25-pound bike, the outcome is always ugly. When a 180-pound bike rider slaps the hood of a nearby car in frustration, the outcome is always ugly, too.
No doubt: more needs to be done. Just about all of us know someone who has been seriously injured or killed in a cycling collision. What more can we do about it? Courtesy of PeopleForBikes.

No doubt: more needs to be done. Just about all of us know someone who has been seriously injured or killed in a cycling collision. What more can we do about it? Courtesy of PeopleForBikes.

The Need for Solutions and Personal Responsibility

Lots of programs and informal efforts focus on cycling safety and cooperation on the road. The Ride of Silence works to build shared respect among motorists and bike riders by honoring the fallen with slow-paced, silent bike rides. White ghost bikes are often posted at locations of fatal bike accidents. Every time I see a ghost bike, it pierces my soul and gets me thinking about making bicycling safer.

The League of American Bicyclists directs an evolving Ride Smart program that trains and certifies riding instructors and provides advice on safe riding.

In the Netherlands, all school children receive bicycling instruction in elementary school, and all receive broader traffic safety instruction in sixth grade. A few U.S. schools and after-school programs now conduct similar programs.

No doubt: more needs to be done. Just about all of us know someone who has been seriously injured or killed in a cycling collision. What more can we do about it?

Beyond the work we do here at PeopleForBikes, I believe it starts with personal responsibility. I go out of my way to ride predictably, stop at lights and stop signs, and let drivers turn right on red ahead of me when I’m going straight.  I work with drivers to earn their respect and compassion and I hope the positive feelings carry over to all of their interactions on the road. This may sound corny and idealistic to some. I don’t care.

When people ride bikes, great things happen. This is the overriding truth. At the same time, we’ve got so much more work to do to tame the gorilla in the room: safety.

PeopleForBikes is open to your ideas. Post them here. Thanks.

 This article has been republished with permission from PeopleForBikes.org.

Tim Blumenthal is president of PeopleForBikes. Launched in 1999 as Bikes Belong, PeopleForBikes includes both an industry coalition of bicycling suppliers and retailers, as well as a charitable foundation … We provide a unified front for advocating for bicycling on a national level, a strategic center to ensure collaboration between each piece in the bicycling movement, and the ability to support local efforts through our financial, community and communication resources.

 

Related Stories:

Conversation: Cycling en Masse to Fight Multiple Sclerosis

The Feed: The Future of Cycling in San Antonio

RAGBRAI: Iowa by Bike

Bicycle and Vehicle Laws: Enforce with Mutual Respect

 Something Monday: The Mysterious Masonic Lodges

TxDOT’s Toll Road Bike Ban: Why it Matters to All Cyclists

Hell Yes and Hell No to Bike Helmets

The Bike Helmet Dilemma: Freedom and Choice vs. Safety

SicloVerde: Riding Bikes, Visiting Gardens For a Cause

Building a Bicycle-Friendly San Antonio, One Committee Meeting at a Time

Share the Road: SAPD Launches New Program to Catch Unsafe Drivers

The Feed: National Bike Month Rides into San Antonio, Just in Time

 

8 thoughts on “The Gorilla in the Room: One Cyclist Death Too Many

  1. I agree with this’s quote. But there are some other major issues I have with cyclists. I say cyclists because I not one. I am a jogger and a automotive enthusiast.

    As a jogger on the OPS trail I have noticed cyclists have become super comfortable with mumbling “right” or “left” as if that gives them some kinda get outta jail free card to speed right past you and graze you. The bells are also over the top. I have seen multiple people get hit.

    As a motorist who respects cyclists I have been pretty impressed with how most San Antonio cyclists ride. My only major concern with them has been for their own safety. The number of them without helmets let alone proper clothing amazes me. I guess some wanna learn the hard way.

    I know I did when I had a concussion after not putting my helmet “just one time”…

    Anyway, I think an article on cyclists just rethinking themselves and the purpose they are riding on the streets for should be written.

    Because like you said, it is a 250lbs cyclist vs a 3000lbs. To 6000lbs car.

    Cyclists need to be aware of their risks and others risks.

  2. The problem with cyclists is….they are the only organized group calling for safer roadways. Pedestrians don’t really have an organized movement and cagers aren’t going to be giving up any speed/convenience anytime soon. Cycling organizations make it look like cyclists are asking for things. In the eyes of most non-cyclists we seem whiny and pompous. Oh, like we deserve our own lane, we can ride in the road…blahlahblah But cycling’s danger is NOT due to cycling. It cannot be cured by anything a cyclist can do. The problem is not a lack of bike lanes or helmets or lights or hand signals etc. The problem here is the roads are dangerous. To everyone and everything. Cyclists, walkers, joggers, pedestrians, skate boarders…shoot, even drivers. PLEASE have a look at the fatalities TX roadways see every year…take an even closer look at Bexar County. Please? We will NEVER get anything we want as cyclists without fully addressing this mindset. I am glad that someone is talking about it, but we have to understand….especially in SA…most general people are VERY disconnected from a person that will spend $500+ on a bicycle. And from working in a bike shop, I know that $500 is entry-level…if that. Basically, I’m trying to explain the grave disconnect from the cyclist to the average person/motorist. Cyclists are always going to seem like outsiders UNTIL we make our cause a MUCH larger movement. We all need our roads to be safer. We need to realize we have a problem. As cyclists, our lack of safety on the roads is just one SMALL symptom of a much larger and more grave problem. Our roads are extremely dangerous.

  3. Hi, thanks for an interesting article – it’s always a shame that an article such as this is prompted by the death of a cyclist.

    I’m curious about the comment:
    ‘Our counterparts in the Netherlands and Denmark—arguably the two best bicycling nations in the world—advise us to work on making bicycling safer, but not talk about it publicly.’

    I wonder what evidence base that road safety organisations in TN and Denmark have for this statement. SWOV (the Dutch road safety organisation) do endorse the use of helmets, for example, as a safety measure for cycling even though cycling in TN is very popular and very safe:

    http://www.swov.nl/rapport/factsheets/uk/fs_bicycle_helmets.pdf

    Certainly in Australia, where I live, the research would suggest that perception of safety is indeed the greatest determinent of non-participation in cycling. The effect appears to stem not from cycling safety promotion (which is rare in Australia)but cycling itself – which is a fraught experience on Australian roads.

    regards,

    seamus

  4. How we plan our cities and how we design our roads is critical. In the newer neighborhoods the only roads that go through are busy artery roads that are very dangerous for cyclists. In the older neighborhoods, where there is more of a grid pattern cyclists can take a parallel street. On the north side I can take Shook or Howard instead of San Pedro, and on the south side I can take Presa instead of St. Marys and S. Main instead of South Flores. It is important that we keep our safe streets available for cyclists.

  5. There is a group of folks in San Antonio advocating for “complete streets,” which the City has incorporated into some planning documents. A complete street lets all users share the space. I drive, I walk, I try to stay on my bike. Let’s hold the city to its promises!

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