Friday, October 10, 2008

Getting the facts straight

The tragic car-bike crash that ended Jen Futrell's life gave a glimpse into some of the factors that impede progress in improving bicycle safety and traffic safety in general. The hackneyed and defeatist "tragic accident" language came up repeatedly, even among some people grieving Jen's death. Of course, the motorist didn't mean to hit and kill someone. Nonetheless, he chose to pass a bus on a busy road without being able to see whatever was on the other side of that bus - in this case, a law-abiding bicyclist. That was a foolish, reckless choice, not an accident.

Another impediment that arose predictably after the crash is the familiar blame-the-victim mentality: "Everybody knows it is too dangerous to ride bicycle on Bardstown Road" so we bicyclists should stay off it for our own good. The drivers whose incautious, impatient decisions make it dangerous don't need to drive differently, because "everybody knows" that they never will. Instead, bicyclists need to stay away from their chosen destinations on Bardstown Road or find a less direct route to them in order to leave Bardstown Road to the motorists. This infuriating argument also came up after the death of Chips Cronin on the Clark Memorial (2nd Street) Bridge last year and the death of Vance Kokojan on Outer Look in July. In all three cases, the motorist undoubtedly caused the crash - yet people blame the bicyclist simply for being there.

A more subtle obstacle to improving safety also appeared in these three car-bike crashes, and many more: the near-impossibility of getting good information about what happened. If the public would receive clear, validated information about the circumstances and causes of a crash, people could learn from the experience and change their behavior. Even if very few people in the general public would take advantage of this information, those of us who work to improve traffic safety could use it to focus our efforts and develop effective campaigns to curb the most dangerous driving and bicycling behaviors.

The crash that killed Jen offers a better than usual example of how hard, and how important, it is to do this. Media reports and e-mail messages circulated by friends at various points gave incorrect information on her age, which vehicle struck her, and even when she died. (The memorial demonstration and placement of a ghost bike took place two days before her death.) Retellings of eyewitness accounts and descriptions of a security-camera video of the crash disagree on whether the motorist passed the bus on the right or on the left. I have yet to hear an explanation of the lanes in which the three involved vehicles were traveling, and the presence or absence of on-street parking nearby. One story makes the motorist's driving sound wildly reckless; another makes it sound ordinary, though ending with a tragic bit of bad luck.

LMPD apparently awaits toxicology results to determine if the driver was under the influence of any drugs at the time of the crash. Even when they complete their investigation, though, they do not ordinarily release any details about a crash. News outlets might report any charges filed (say, DUI), but they rarely learn or publish details that could help us understand what actions could make a similar crash less likely in the future. We need clear information from the law enforcement agency conducting the crash investigation. Only with such information can we make good choices on how to invest public resources to reduce crashes.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Jen's funeral

Twelve bicycles parked
Singing, prayers, memories
Drought yields to good rain.

Friday, October 3, 2008

One cyclist dying, another injured

Jennifer Futrell, the 27-year-old woman struck by a minivan on Bardstown Road on Tuesday is close to death of her injuries. An e-mail message circulated this morning prematurely announced her death. I was with her and her father in her hospital room a few minutes ago. She never regained consciousness after the crash. Her family and the medical staff expect her to die within hours due to brain injuries sustained in the crash. She would be the third bicyclist killed by a crash with a motor vehicle in Louisville thus far in 2008. This would match Louisville's worst recent one-year bicyclist death toll. At least two of these bicyclists were killed while doing nothing wrong. I feel terribly sad, but anger will rise to the top soon.

Yesterday at about 6 PM, another driver struck another cyclist from behind, this time on East Broadway. To the extent that one can find good news in such a story, this latest incident has some. According to the Courier-Journal report, the bicyclist's injuries appear not to be life-threatening. In spite of fleeing the scene, the motorist was apprehended by police and charged with DUI, leaving the scene, and drug-related and other offenses. The involvement of alcohol, drugs, and hit-and-run make this driver easy to arrest and prosecute. Kentucky law specifically allows police officers to arrest people for DUI or hit-and-run without having witnessed the incident. This driver will not likely escape punishment.

Jennifer's family has had good legal help since immediately after the crash. They will choose whether to file charges against the driver who hit their daughter. A security camera video and numerous eyewitness accounts provided enormously more information than usually available about a traffic crash. While respecting their choice and the choices of other grieving families of crash victims, we need to reform the attitudes and legal structures that fail to hold impatient, distracted, incautious drivers accountable for their deadly actions as long as they commit them while sober. Lives are on the line, every day.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Crash update

The woman struck from behind by a car on Bardstown Road on Tuesday remains in the ICU with multiple skull fractures. I have not heard her prognosis. Close friends are visiting her room, though she remains unconscious. My heart goes out to her family.

I heard today that alcohol was not involved in the crash. Instead, the cause appears to have been impatience: a motorist who refused to believe that the TARC bus ahead of him or her had a good reason not to drive in the right lane and not to drive faster. A colleague pointed out that a driver following the bus at a safe distance could have seen the bicyclist in the right lane in time to avoid hitting her. The creepy raw video footage from the TV traffic helicopter showed the van stopped perhaps a hundred feet beyond where the smashed bicycle was propped against a tree. This gives me the impression that the driver went a significant distance after hitting the bicyclist before bothering to stop. This suggests that she or he was going faster than 35 mph (52 feet per second) or wasn't paying attention to driving, or both.

This crash and two of the four most recent fatal car-bike collisions in Louisville have involved motorists hitting appropriately visible bicyclists from behind. Though statistics show that most car-bike crashes involve motorists turning across the path of cyclists, the relatively infrequent car-hits-bike-from-behind crash is more deadly because the motor vehicle is more likely to be moving fast. This gives an explanation for the observed effectiveness of on-street bike lanes at reducing bicycle crash deaths.

I wish I could think about crash probabilities and driver education and street design in abstract terms, but I can't. There is innocent blood on the street. It makes me sick to see the inevitable come to pass. Impatient drivers taking unnecessary risks every day in often-futile efforts to save a few seconds. We now have a young bicyclist clinging to life because one of those drivers didn't get away with the impatient maneuver. The wrong person is suffering for it.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Creepy crashes

Halloween is 30 days away, but yesterday was the creepiest day of the year for me in terms of traffic crashes. On my regular route to work, I pass through the intersection of Liberty Street and Baxter Avenue, just after passing under the railroad overpass. Yesterday morning, at the exact location where I would typically stand at the traffic signal waiting to turn right onto Baxter Avenue (heading toward downtown), I needed to change lanes to avoid a minivan stopped across the median and sideways into my normal lane amidst crash debris. Another involved car was stopped nearby, along with a police cruiser. I have no idea how the northbound van ended up sitting in the westbound lane, but I was mighty glad that I hadn't been standing there astride my bicycle when it arrived.

In the afternoon, a friend informed me of a crash that had critically injured a bicyclist on Bardstown Road near Grinstead Drive. I had ridden there just a few days ago. A bicyclist traveling southbound on Bardstown Road had been hit by a minivan also heading southbound. News reports have thus far given no clues about the cause of the crash. Epitomizing the rush to release sensational news, a television news report of the crash and the accompanying photos and video alternately report the victim as a teenager and a 27-year-old woman, and the striking vehicle as a minivan and a TARC bus. It turns out that the TARC bus on the scene was not involved in the crash, and the victim was indeed 27 and not a teenager. I got the creeps from the photos and video (filmed from a helicopter), though they do not show the victim or any obvious gore. Just the tell-tale bicycle with a crushed rear wheel, leaning against a tree behind yellow police tape...

The crash happened at about 3:40 PM on a day with good visibility and no precipitation, on a street with quite a bit of bicycle traffic. An eyewitness account, which I received second-hand, said that the bicyclist was riding in the middle of the right southbound lane, being passed by a TARC bus in the left southbound lane. The minivan had been following the bus and swerved to pass it on the right. While doing so, it hit the bicyclist. This sounds eerily similar to the crash that killed bicycle commuter Vance Kokojan in July.

If you know any of the eyewitnesses to yesterday's crash, please ask them to contact Bicycling for Louisville if and when they are willing to talk about what they saw. Learning what actually happened in injury crashes is critical to our ability to change the factors that cause these crashes. It also helps us learn the strengths and weaknesses of the justice system in protecting the rights of bicyclists.

A fellow cyclist informed me this morning that the crash victim is in the ICU, unconscious. He had spoken with her father. Please hold the injured cyclist and her family and friends in your prayers or positive thoughts.