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.

Monday, August 10, 2009

"You play by the rules!"

On my regular commuting ride this morning, I turned right from the western end of Lexington Road onto Baxter Avenue which, after a block, merges into E. Jefferson Street. Approaching this intersection from the southeast, I merged into the left lane to turn south. As I signaled a left turn and coasted slowly waiting for a green light, a motorist in the lane to my right turned to me and said, "You play by the rules! You're using your turn signal - that's great!" We shared friendly greetings and went on our respective ways when the light turned green.

Many (most?) motorists notice bicyclists and our behavior. They appreciate when we do the right thing. Motorists give me more friendly waves and "thank you" comments than horn blasts and angry gestures. I might arrive at work a minute later some mornings because I came to a complete stop rather than rolling a stop sign, or because I yielded to another driver or two rather than squeezing into the smallest possible opening when making a left turn or a right turn on red. Experiencing appreciation instead of hostility from fellow road users more than repays that minimal delay. If enough of us ride this way, we'll start to turn around the scofflaw image that besets bicyclists. A better image with motorists will remove big barriers in our work toward making our region a great place for bicycling.

Monday, August 3, 2009

New thoughts about "Chips" Cronen's death

Experienced commuting cyclist George "Chips" Cronen died just over 2 years ago, struck from behind in broad daylight by a spaced-out motorist on the Clark Memorial (2nd Street) Bridge. Two recent events made me aware of something that might at least partly account for the deadly motorist's failure to see and yield to Chips on the bridge.

Riding back to Louisville from a meeting in Jeffersonville, I rode across the Clark Memorial Bridge a couple of weeks ago. I crossed the bridge on a Friday at about 6:15 PM, when the bridge carried very little traffic. As usual, I rode in the middle of the right lane in order to make myself obvious to overtaking drivers. With a passing lane in each direction, drivers can generally pass a bicyclist riding in the right lane without experiencing any delay.

Looking into my helmet mirror, I saw a driver closing on me at what seemed significantly above the 35 mph speed limit. ("Everybody speeds on that bridge," a non-cyclist friend recently observed.) Anyway, the car was approaching faster than most cars did. I watched the car get closer and closer, without changing lanes, until I feared for my life. I waved my left hand over my head to get the driver's attention, and yelled "Hey!" at the top of my lungs. The driver moved into the passing lane perhaps 50 feet before passing and seemed to glare at me as though I had somehow caused her some imposition. I said a prayer of thanks for not having joined the ranks of innocent bicyclists struck from behind in greater Louisville.

A few days later I read Larry Preble's horrifying account of watching a motorcyclist, stopped at an intersection, get struck from behind by a motorist traveling at high speed. The crash took place in broad daylight on a straight rural Indiana road. The motorcyclist was clearly visible, and people on the scene made no mention of the guilty driver appearing intoxicated. The guilty driver reportedly said, repeatedly, "I didn't see him!" How on earth do drivers in unchallenging driving situations fail to notice human beings clearly visible directly in front of them?

Perhaps "unchallenging driving situations" make these crashes more likely. On the Clark Memorial Bridge, as on that rural Indiana road, drivers face such easy driving conditions that they have little incentive to pay attention. They have essentially no traffic potentially crossing their path, few or no intersections or signs to obey, and low likelihood of encountering a person, animal, or inanimate obstacle. I suspect that many drivers treat these situations as a license to space out. That attitude might work for a few hours at a stretch, but it can't remain safe over the millions of vehicle-hours of driving that occur on lightly traveled roads in the US every day.

This weekend, two weeks after my experience on the bridge, triathlete John Carr became the latest cyclist in greater Louisville killed by an overtaking motorist - the C-J account is here. The motorist, driving on a suspended license while intoxicated, fleeing the scene, and resisting arrest, has been charged with murder and other crimes enough to keep him in prison for decades. Yet, when a sober motorist makes the same deadly mistake and stays on the scene to talk with the police, that motorist generally faces no punishment more severe than higher auto insurance rates. We need to change our legal system to punish deadly inattentive driving and make abundantly clear that operating a motor vehicle has weighty responsibilities. The myth of carefree driving may help to sell cars and trucks, but I do not accept its cost: thousands of preventable traffic deaths per year.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Just a few pieces of broken glass

... remain on the street at the site where a hit & run driver threw a commuting cyclist into a parked car early this morning. The cyclist's hand shattered the glass covering the left taillight of the parked car. This caused injuries severe enough to require hand surgery today. The cyclist's father says that he'll be fine... of course after weeks or months of pain and disability.

I don't know enough about the crash to begin to assess blame, except for the obvious part: the law (KRS 189.580) requires the operator of a vehicle involved in an injury crash to stop and render aid, and to report the crash to authorities. The driver can avoid some further legal consequences by reporting the crash within 10 days, but she or he has already failed to stop and render aid.

The crash took place on westbound Grinstead Drive at Bayly Avenue at about 6:30 AM today. The injured cyclist is not aware of any witnesses. The car hit him from behind and he was unable to provide any vehicle description beyond "a red car." At this point, it is probably a red car with some damage to the front bumper. If you know anyone who may have seen or heard the crash, please urge them to call the LMPD non-emergency number (574-7111) during business hours and file a report.

I recently found a huge repository of Kentucky traffic crash data and am working to mine as much useful information as possible regarding crashes in our area involving bicycles. I'll let you know what I find. To start, here's a thought-provoking statistic:

In Louisville Metro over the past 5 years (2004-2008), 11 bicyclists lost their lives in traffic crashes. Using conservative estimates of bicycle usage from a recent national study, I calculated that this equates to one fatal crash per 7.5 million miles of bicycling in Louisville Metro. Given the poor bicycling behavior seen around here every day, we could certainly improve this rate dramatically. If we also got help from motorists (less speeding, distracted driving, and DUI, and simply paying better attention), we could probably cut our fatal crash rate by a factor of 10.

Dropping our bicycling fatality rate deserves our concerted effort. Nonetheless, even at the current fatality rate, the extension-of-life benefits of bicycling vastly outweigh the risk of death while riding.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Bike-To-Work Day, Week, Year, Lifetime

Congratulations to Scott Render and the city's Bike Louisville team for their successful events for Bike-To-Work Day this past Friday. They got several hundred people, including many first-time bicycle commuters, to ride bicycle to work on Friday. A large crowd assembled at the Bike-to-Work Celebration at Fourth Street Live, and the combination of events garnered quite a bit of media attention including pieces in the Courier-Journal, WAVE-3 TV, WLKY TV, and Louisville Business First. Bicycling for Louisville was among several organizations staffing booths at the Bike-To-Work Celebration.

I appreciate the special events, such as the Mayor's Hike & Bike rides and Bike-To-Work events, that encourage participation by people who don't identify themselves as cyclists. Someone who has enjoyed a 15-mile group ride or who has ridden bicycle to work, even once, will have more sympathy for bicyclists on the road and a more open mind to community investments in better bicycling. To tap the full potential of these promotional events, though, we need to take the next step and help these new or occasional riders develop the skills and attitudes for riding regularly.

Bicycling for Louisville offers two resources toward this end: our How to Bike to Work website and our adult bicycling skills classes. The hands-on Confident Cycling course, in particular, teaches skills and knowledge of value to nearly anyone who rides on streets with automotive traffic. The course really does build confidence as well as competence. Both the course and the website include information gleaned from many years and hundreds of thousands of miles of bicycling experience. If you consider yourself a seasoned bicycle commuter with little need for additional training or information, I encourage you to check out the Benefits of Bicycle Commuting page on the website. It might help you bring new riders into the bike-to-work fold.

If this post sounds like blatant promotion of Bicycling for Louisville and our programs, I won't argue with that description. I hope that you take advantage of these resources. Give us suggestions on how to improve them, and tell us what else you need to support safer and more enjoyable bicycling, and what you think would get more people bicycling. I look forward to hearing from you.