Paul Andrews

A friend could be dead

In Bicycle advocacy, Bicycling on May 13, 2009 at 10:43 am

Riding his bike in Seattle’s U District, my friend Chuck Taylor got hit by a car. It looks like he’s OK — shaken up and a couple of minor injuries, but nothing worse (as it appears now). His blog post, “I could be dead,” is a fascinating account of the accident “process.” It’s been more than 25 years since I was hit by a car, but it’s an experience that never leaves you.

I know that intersection well, since it’s smack in the middle of a 10-mile ride I do several times a week. By rights it should be a bike-friendly intersection, since the Burke-Gilman Trail crosses directly through it and it’s in the bicycle-saturated U District. But it’s not, for several reasons. First, it’s a busy pedestrian intersection. So for drivers it sets up the dynamic of watching for foot, rather than cycling, traffic. Foot traffic is slow. Cycling traffic off the BGT is, comparatively, fast. A driver naturally watches for pedestrian traffic to clear, then assumes it’s OK to go ahead. Just at that moment, though, a cyclist could be zipping along from the trail and enter the intersection at just the wrong time. I haven’t had a chance to talk to Chuck and don’t know if any of this applies to his situation. But it’s one reason for cyclists to be abundantly careful there.

The problem, as Chuck does discuss, is that a pedestrian signal gives clear sailing to cyclists coming along on the trail. So a cyclist naturally is going to conclude clear sailing when a driver may not even be aware of cycling traffic coming through.

Driver sightlines also are less than desirable there. There’s a fairly steep incline coming up Pacific from the west that provides little sight clearance for the intersection till you’re there. If you’re coming from the east, the corner is sharp enough, and the trail is elevated enough, for bikes not to be noticed. Remember that a bike on the trail can be going almost as fast as a car, especially at that point, heavily trafficked by bikes.

Nothing in this description should absolve the driver from responsibility, nor implicate Chuck in the accident. As proven by the citation issued, the driver was at fault. (It’s good that a citation was issued, in fact; hopefully an indication of raised awareness by “cops on bikes” of bicycle rights.) But the law is not always safe, particularly when it comes to cycling.

Two other factors were at work here. First, the young age of the driver (20). Kids don’t always understand the vast number of permutations in bike-car traffic scenarios. And the younger generation tends to be trigger-happy with the gas pedal. Not only do they think themselves invincible (as youth tend to), today’s cars provide ABS and air bags and all other manner of insulation from the true risks of driving a ton of metal and glass around on city streets. I’m always on the alert for “darters” in the U District, too, since kids tend to treat risk as something you accelerate out of rather than slow down for.

Second, you’ve got the confluence of heavy bike and heavy car traffic. Of all the close calls and accidents I’ve witnessed over the years in Seattle, I’d have to say anecdotally that the U District has the largest percentage of any neighborhood, even downtown. It’s just a tough environment, because the drivers are young and inexperienced, and bike traffic is of course quite a bit higher than elsewhere in the city. The City of Seattle, which is in the process of upgrading and marking new intersections with bike signage, could help here by making the BGT connection clearer to drivers (and the dangers of the intersection clearer to cyclists).

So yes, Chuck, you got lucky man. Take it easy and hopefully we’ll see you on the bike again soon!

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