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.

1 comment:

bike it's patriotic said...

We keep getting dribs and drabs of info through "back channel" sources. It's hard to see a coherent picture, other than the pain of the friends and family of Ms Futrell. I've heard that her lane position was not good, and she was thus hard to see. I've heard she was in a place where she would readily be seen. Regardless, the motorist passed a TARC bus on the right--something nobody should do without a CAREFUL examination of why the bus is in the left lane.

Hopefully more road users will take this as a wake-up call, and pay better attention.