Friday, September 25, 2009

Boulder, Louisville, and press coverage of crashes

Thanks very much to the readers from Boulder and San Francisco who commented on my most recent post. I haven't passed through Boulder in many years, so I can't comment from personal experience about bicycling conditions there. I find it easy to accept their assessment that Boulder has not reached perfection, either in its bicycling environment or in public attitudes toward bicycling. We all agree, too, that Boulder has a leg up on Louisville on both counts. This shouldn't surprise anyone, given that the League of American Bicyclists has awarded Boulder a rare Platinum Bicycle-Friendly Community award while honoring Louisville at the Bronze level.

Getting away from the inter-city comparison, I have a wish list for reporters who cover traffic crashes. I will focus on crashes involving bicyclists, but this list probably applies to other crashes as well.

First, get the details right and show as complete a picture as available information allows. For example, the August 5 Hardin County newspaper report of the horrifying car-bike crash in Radcliff, KY that killed one bicyclist and injured three others said that the bicyclists were "sharing" the left of two eastbound lanes with the car that hit them, and that at least one of the bicyclists was thrown onto a concrete median by the crash. A later report in the same paper, based on interviews with family members who came to the scene, said that the riders were "pedaling along the median..." Did the car climb a concrete curb to hit the bicyclists? The Google Street View of the scene (Lincoln Trail Boulevard between Lorraine Street and Congress Drive) shows a grassy median at street level, with no curb or elevation above the road. A motorist straying onto the grassy median to hit three bicycles in a row sounds to me like gross negligence, though not so egregious as if he had driven over a concrete curb to do it! If the bicyclists were on the pavement, at twilight, on the left edge of the left lane without lights or reflectors, the driver might have little fault in the crash. Someone on the scene shortly after the crash should have been able to determine whether the bikes were on the pavement or on the grass median when hit by the car.

The early article noted that the crash took place at about 9 PM, and speaks of the need for bicyclists to use lights and reflective gear when riding at night. On August 1, sunset was 8:51 PM. Kentucky law (KRS 189.030) requires bicycles and motor vehicles to use lights beginning 30 minutes after sunset. I find this law much too lenient and advise bicyclists to use headlights and taillights starting well before sunset. Nonetheless, the law stands. If the crash took place before 9:21 PM, the bicyclists were within their rights (though foolish) to ride without lights or reflective gear aside from the mandated white front reflector and red rear reflector.

Acknowledge that both parties may have contributed to the crash. The Hardin County reporter eventually did a good job of this, though over the course of the two articles six weeks apart. The first noted that the bicyclists had not made themselves visible with lights and reflectors and the second noted that police said that "driver inattention was likely the cause of the wreck." I realize that the reporter might not have had all of that information at the time of the first article.

Sometimes, though, important information about the causes of a crash never make it into the media. In the case of a Wisconsin state legislator running a red light and hitting a bicyclist in Madison, WI, a video recording made from a transit bus clearly shows the legislator's SUV running the red light and striking the bicyclist. (Don't watch this news clip if you don't want to watch this crash video repeatedly!) Madison TV news coverage shockingly ended with a statement that an eyewitness told police that the crash had been the bicyclist's fault. I was outraged, until I heard from a bicycle advocate in Madison who made that statement understandable. The bicyclist evidently had come down a hill toward the intersection and passed to the right of the transit bus using a right-turn-only lane. Legally, the motorist still bears fault for having run the red light. The cyclist, though, could have avoided the crash by slowing to stay behind the bus in the through lane once the light turned green. The eyewitness might not have understood liability law, but did notice something important. Unfortunately, news viewers never got that information.

Third, interview a bicycle safety expert familiar with the crash. This is the person who can interpret the evidence and help the public learn what to do to prevent crashes like the one that just made the news. Usually, both the motorist and the bicyclist(s) could have taken steps to make the crash much less likely. I'm an idealist, and I believe that the news should help us learn from other people's experience rather than merely satisfying a desire for gore and scandal. Giving a thoughtful, well-informed person a few seconds to comment on a crash can help the news serve an educational role.

Not everybody who plays football in a rec league is a football expert, and not every avid bicyclist is a bicycle safety expert. Most cities and every state have some legitimate authorities on bicycle safety. To find them, one can search for League Cycling Instructors or the leaders of bicycle advocacy organizations that belong to the Alliance for Biking and Walking. Unfortunately, any media market in the US will have many injury bike crashes and occasional bike fatalities, so the bike crash story of the moment will certainly not be the last. Establish a credible source for bicycle safety information and give them a chance to share their knowledge with your readers or viewers or listeners when crashes happen.

Finally, routinely address common misconceptions. A reader commenting on the online edition of the first Radcliff story noted his shock that the police officer said that bicyclists are not allowed on sidewalks and are allowed on roads. This comment is utterly predictable, and the reporter should have a quotation or source available to address why this law is appropriate. Articles on bike crashes should routinely deal with the frequency of fatal or injury bike crashes, to blunt the common argument that bicycling is soooo dangerous (which it is not). They should address the limits on police power to charge a person in a crash not witnessed by the officer, and the legal rights of bicyclists relevant to the given case. A single sentence can usually take care of each of these concerns. Lacking those sentences, articles about bike crashes tend to stir up lots of ill-founded anti-bike and anti-law sentiment that does nothing to improve conditions on the street.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

How we deal with crashes

A newspaper story of a tragic, fatal bike-car crash in Boulder, CO raised some painful contrasts between Boulder and Louisville (Kentucky, not the Louisville in Colorado). The bicyclist, Casey Najera, was riding southbound through an intersection, with the right of way, when a motorist traveling northbound turned left across Najera's path. Najera hit the car and was killed. The motorist said that she did not see the bicyclist and "was terribly upset about the accident," according to her mother.

One could remove all town names and geographic references from the article and know that the crash had not happened in greater Louisville, KY. First of all, the driver was cited with careless driving resulting in death. Colorado Revised Statutes 42-4-1402 defines this as a class 1 misdemeanor. This carries a penalty of 6-18 months in prison, a fine of $500 - $5000, or both. Kentucky law, as best I can tell, has no similar charge. Besides, Kentucky law requires the police to witness the crash before issuing a citation or making an arrest for anything short of a felony. Any media report of a bike-car fatality in greater Louisville hedges about whether charges will be filed, because the only hope for filing charges rests on results of toxicology tests. The Colorado newspaper story gave a different picture: "[The motorist] was cited by police for careless driving resulting in death." The driver did something unacceptable and stands to get punished for it.

I found even more startling the reader responses to the online story. All of them spoke of the tragedy of the bicyclist's death. None ranted against the driver or "the system." None attempted to blame the bicyclist or suggested that bicyclists should stay off the roads for our own good. These reader comments contrast shockingly with those that swarm like flies at the end of any Louisville KY online news story of a bike-car crash.

The news story ended with mention of a recent bike-car crash resulting in a bicyclist's injury, and two fatal car-bike crashes earlier in the year. Yet neither the reporter nor any of the comment writers felt a need to declare an epidemic of bicyclist injuries and deaths or make any sweeping statements about the dangers of bicycling. I guess that the newspaper readers of Boulder, Colorado see bicycling as a good and ordinary activity that sometimes results in crashes, injuries, and deaths. Folks here in Louisville, KY seem to feel that way about driving cars, but not about riding bicycles.

Health and crash data paint a clear picture: the benefits of bicycling vastly outweigh the risks. Here in greater Louisville, we continue to read and hear opinions that bicyclists should, "for their own good," stop riding on streets and rural roads. I hope to live to see the day when anyone stating that opinion will be viewed as a crackpot. In other words, I want the public at large to view bicycling on streets as normal and appropriate. Then, we might have a bicycle-friendly community.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Indy and Louisville: interesting contrasts

I spent the weekend in downtown Indianapolis attending a conference. Indy seemed halfway between Louisville and Chicago in architecture, sports, and urban liveliness, but not in transportation. Here are some of the differences between Louisville and Indianapolis that made an impression on me and my wife. We didn't ride bicycles in Indianapolis, but walked quite a bit.
  • Urban bicyclists in Indy ride almost exclusively on the sidewalks, even in traffic and road conditions that would allow a reasonably skilled rider to ride easily on the streets. "Vehicular cycling" seemed a virtually unknown concept.
  • Only about 10% of the bicyclists that we saw wore helmets. We saw more helmet-wearing bicyclists within 5 minutes of returning to Louisville than we saw in 2 days in Indy.
  • What little bicycle parking that we saw was sub-standard, not capable of holding a bicycle upright while allowing a U-lock to secure both the frame and front wheel. Most blocks had no bicycle parking at all, though one commercial parking garage had signs noting the availability of bike parking inside.
  • Motorists actually obey crosswalks in Indianapolis. In three days, I don't remember one motor vehicle cutting off or threatening pedestrians or bicyclists in a crosswalk. This morning, on my bike ride to work in Louisville, I saw a construction truck with trailer roll through a red light rather than waiting for two pedestrians waiting to cross legally in a crosswalk. We never saw anything remotely like that in Indianapolis.
  • Pedestrians in Indy respect the crossing signals, for the most part. Even when crossing against a "don't walk" signal, they waited until no moving traffic was within a block.
  • Though we noticed some urban chic single-speed/fixed gear bikes, we saw no devil-may-care high-speed lawless bicyclists. Even the pair of young men riding single-speeds delivering sandwiches for a local shop rode in a pretty mellow way, slowing respectfully for pedestrians.
  • We saw zero bike lanes, bike route signs, or multi-use paths. The Monon Trail ends several blocks from downtown, and there was no visible indication that anyone was working to make bicycling safer or easier than ordinary downtown streets would allow.
I didn't go to Indianapolis expecting or looking for contrasts with Louisville in terms of bicycling and walking. All of this surprised me. To summarize, Louisville seems to have better bicycling infrastructure and Indianapolis seems to have better pedestrian and motorist behavior. A large fraction of bicyclists in both cities appears to feel safer riding on sidewalks than on streets, though the proportions of vehicular cyclists and avid-but-lawless bicyclists seem much higher in Louisville.