Thursday, July 24, 2008

Making Real Improvements

In the wake of Vance Kokojan's tragic death, Mayor Abramson, Police Chief White, and citizens around the region have stated their opinions of what it will take to make bicycling safer in our region. Several priorities stand out, based on the experience of many cities around the world.

First, keep encouraging bicycling. Mayor Abramson and other Metro officials continue to tell the community that bicycling, for both transportation and recreation, is good for bicyclists and for the community at large. The Mayor continues to remind motorists that bicyclists belong on the roads. Thank you, Jerry. This message needs to stay front and center, because experience worldwide shows that more bicycling correlates with lower crash, injury, and death rates. (My July 17 post, "Good Times, Bad Times" explains this "safety in numbers" phenomenon.) We need to make sure that the frustration and fear that follow a bicyclist's death do not result in people riding less.

Second, address any factors that contributed to the specific crash. An avid bicyclist and fellow UPS employee of Mr. Kokojan has contacted the City's head transportation engineer suggesting two fairly simple steps to make Outer Loop survivable for other bicyclists who need to use it. First, keep the shoulders clean. Having a ridable shoulder would help bicyclists stay out of the path of high-speed motorists. Second, drop the speed limit from 55 mph to 45 mph. That stretch of Outer Loop already includes two traffic signals at UPS, so a lower speed limit will not significantly interfere with its function for motorists. Lower speed dramatically reduces the chances of death for a cyclist or pedestrian hit by a motor vehicle, and also makes it easier for motorists to avoid crashing. I spoke yesterday to the same Metro official and supported those two changes. Because Outer Loop is a state road, Kentucky Department of Highways will need to decide about changing the speed limit. Metro government can lobby for the change, but can't make the decision.

Third, learn from the crash. Comparing this crash with others helps to identify patterns that point to actions we can take to reduce risks. I'm thinking of four fatal car-hit-bike crashes in Louisville duringthe past 2 years: this most recent crash on Outer Loop, the May 4 pre-dawn death of a bicyclist struck by a police cruiser on Dixie Highway, the infamous death of Chips Cronen last July on the Clark Memorial Bridge, and the cyclist on Grinstead Drive killed by a motorist turning left onto Cherokee Parkway in 2006. Three of these four fatal car-bike crashes took place in dim light at or before dawn, one on a misty day. Motorists need reminders to stay alert to bicyclists in less-than-ideal light, and bicyclists would do well to invest in better-than-minimalist taillights and headlights for riding in poor light. We need to keep fresh batteries in our lights, too, and consider using reflective vests or other reflective gear when riding in dim conditions. At least three of the four crashes involved motorists simply not paying adequate attention, or hurrying without concern for others nearby. There is no excuse for hitting a clearly visible bicyclist from behind - this happened twice among these four crashes. We need laws and public education to make this obvious and to penalize guilty drivers in a way that makes a real impression on them and on others.

Do these four crashes indicate a need for new facilities? Chips Cronen and Vance Kokojan were killed by motorists who could have passed them safely by moving into or staying in the left lane. It would have been wonderful if those roads had shoulders or bike lanes that would have allowed the bicyclists to stay out of the paths of these inattentive drivers, but its is clear than any driver with his or her head on straight could have avoided them just fine on the roads as they exist today. No new facilities could have prevented the other two fatal crashes. Bicycling for Louisville will continue to invest time in the slow process of improving the roads, while also putting an emphasis on improving the behavior of drivers and bicyclists through education combined with better laws and stronger law enforcement.

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