Thursday, July 17, 2008

Good Times, Bad Times

Before seeing the morning's news, I planned to name this post "In the Cool of the Morning." Taking a detour through Seneca and Cherokee Parks and the Beargrass Creek Trail on my bicycle commute this morning, I saw 7 other bicyclists out enjoying the beautiful morning before the heat of the day set in. Watching those recreational bicyclists along with probably 20 runners and 10 walkers out on the park roads and trail got me thinking that Mayor Abramson and Health Department Director Dr. Troutman must feel great to see what seems to me a boom in physical activity in Louisville. They have worked hard to promote it and bring it about.

Alas, the morning news shows a different side of the story: a man bicycling in the right lane westbound on Outer Loop struck and killed by a car swerving from the left lane to pass a tractor trailer. The story chat to the online Courier-Journal story shows common threads:
  • the Mayor should stop promoting bicycling until the city improves the streets
  • the streets are too dangerous, so bicyclists should ride on the sidewalks instead
  • bike lanes won't fix the problem - we need better driving attitudes
  • changing attitudes can't or won't solve the problem - we need bike lanes & paths
It's a tragedy whenever a bicyclist dies in a crash, and my anger and sadness grows when the bicyclist was killed by an impatient and incautious driver. I understand the impulse to make pronouncements and point fingers when a fatal crash like this happens. We need to make sure that we are solving the right problem, though, rather than doing something just to do something.

As best I know, the victim in this crash was the second bicyclist to die in a crash in Louisville Metro in the year since Chips Cronin was struck and killed on the Clark Memorial (2nd Street) Bridge. The other was a man struck and killed by a police car while riding before dawn on Dixie Highway on May 4. What does this mean about the safety of bicycling on streets of Louisville?
  1. Two bicycling deaths in a year falls within the range of bicycling deaths in recent years in Louisville. Of course, we want to see bicycling crashes, injuries, and deaths decline. Every death is one too many. Even so, today's tragic crash does not indicate a trend toward more crashes.
  2. By all observations, many more bicycles are on the roads in Louisville this year than anytime in recent memory. If crash deaths stay roughly constant, that means that the rate of deaths per million bicyclists or per million miles of bicycling has gone down.
  3. Research (download: 140 KB PDF) has shown that bicycling crash, injury, and death rates go down as more people ride bicycle in a given country or city. This makes sense for two reasons. First, motorists grow to expect bicyclists on the road and learn to drive safely around them. Secondly, the bicyclists grow in collective experience and help one another learn to ride more safely.  
  4. Both of these fatal crashes occurred in early morning. We do not know the lighting conditions during this morning's crash, but the May 4 crash happened before sunrise. We do not know whether the bicyclists in either case used lights or reflective accessories. Riding during dark without lights increases crash risks by a factor of 10 over riding in daylight.
  5. These fatal crashes took place on Outer Loop and Dixie Highway, notoriously bad roads for bicycling. Yes, every surface road in Louisville Metro should accommodate bicyclists safely. While we work toward that ideal situation, we need to acknowledge that some roads clearly pose greater hazards than others. The great majority of bicyclists in our region avoid riding on Outer Loop and Dixie Highway, especially at night or during rush hour. To use crashes there and then as an excuse not to ride on other streets during daylight misses the point: on the whole, the health benefits of bicycling vastly outweigh the risks of injury or death from bicycling.
I mourn the death this morning of someone who was probably doing something that we celebrate and support - riding bicycle to work. He had every right to ride where he was riding, and did not deserve to be hit and killed. His family and friends did not deserve to lose him. Let us work to make bicycling safer for everyone, by changing BOTH behavior and road conditions. Let us continue to promote bicycling, because more bicycling means safer bicycling. Let us not let his death scare us away from doing something that gives us joy, saves us money, improves our health, and makes our community better in many ways.

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