Paul Andrews

Posts Tagged ‘cycling safety’

Streetfilms’ misguided video on RR tracks

In Bicycle advocacy on February 12, 2010 at 10:34 am

Streetfilms has put together a clip on how to cross railroad tracks on a bike, using Seattle’s “Missing Link” as an example. I wish I could say it does the trick, but in reality it feeds a lot of misguided mythologies about cycling. Ultimately, it says railroad tracks are something to be feared, and that somehow they’re really really hard to get across, and that the solution to any challenge involving RR tracks is to paint hugeass arrows and figurines scaring cyclists into BEING CAREFUL BECAUSE YOU’RE GOING TO CRASH! Which essentially contributes to the greater public perception that cycling is dangerous and should simply be avoided.

The teaser to the clip says crashing on RR tracks is “something I’ve seen even the most experienced cyclist do.” Really? I’ve been riding all my life and have never crashed on RR tracks. I’ve never been in a group of riders, experienced or otherwise, where a rider has crashed on RR tracks. I’ve never seen or been around a cyclist who blah blah blah. I’ve been told many times to be careful of RR tracks, and have wound up wondering why. As a kid I didn’t get the memo, and as an adult it’s never been a problem. I’m not saying crashes don’t happen, but I am saying this: In the pantheon of dangerous obstacles and momentous challenges facing a cyclist on an everyday basis in urban settings, RR tracks are way way down the list.

Now the accident data does indicate that the Missing Link tracks are problematic. And anyone, even a cyclist (we are sentient, despite the implications of condescending videos and traffic signs), can see that there’s a nasty angle to the crossing. But the solution isn’t cartoon characters on pavement and signs. The solution is to DO SOMETHING about the Missing Link. To its everlasting credit, Cascade Bicycle Club of Seattle has been pushing a fix here for years. And the city of Seattle has a project ready to go. Only litigation by selfish businesses and corporations has blocked the link from becoming “unmissing.” (None of which Streetfilms mentions.)

I don’t mean to pick on Streetfilms here. They obviously meant well. But the road to perdition is paved with good intentions — not RR tracks. If Streetfilms wanted to show a real problem area, it could do a clip on a true nightmare: Westlake Avenue, where bikes not only have to ride parallel to streetcar tracks, but where there are sections of pavement lacking even clearance for bikes from the streetcar and/or traffic. Even there, though, the issue isn’t an inherent catastrophic nature of RR tracks. It’s piss-poor planning that never even considered bikes in the transportation matrix.

Otherwise our hope is that next time Streetfilms will try to pick a subject that doesn’t make cyclists seem like brain-damaged children who have to quake in their pedals every time they see two strips of iron supported by wooden planks.

Riders Down: Bad things happen in more than threes

In Bicycle advocacy, Rider Down on February 3, 2010 at 1:35 am

Sometimes they bunch together by the handful. The past week has certainly borne that out. We were mildly annoyed at the Bellingham police flak who suggested, after a rider was struck by a car making a left turn in front of him, that cyclists wear bright clothing and be careful out there to avoid being hit by drivers. Our take was that’s like telling a gunshot victim to watch out for bullets.

Since that accident, bike riders have been getting hit right and left…hook.

In Sacramento, a cyclist
was hit and dragged a quarter of a mile by an SUV whose driver was … well, let’s just say that brighter clothing and best cycling practices weren’t going to help his cause.

In Los Gatos, a cyclist was killed when an SUV jumped a curb, drove along the sidewalk, barreled through a pedestrian safety barricade and continued on till striking a light post and flipping over. Apparently the cyclist, riding slowly on a sidewalk, was not behaving safely enough. As a witness put it: “I thought please let him get out of the way. But I knew there was no way. All of a sudden there was a ton of debris and dirt after he hit the guy on the bicycle.”

No word on whether he was brightly dressed, which for some reason may have been considered irrelevant in the police investigators’ assessment of culpability.

And what would be the advice
for Jim Rogers, founder of the Tour of Nevada City Bike Shop and holder of the record for most Nevada City Bicycle Classic race competitions, who was cycling along the shoulder of Highway 174 when he was hit from behind by an SUV and killed?

Oh, OK, we’ve got it. The Bellingham flak left out a crucial step in his short list for cycling safety, one that would have prevented all of these accidents from ever happening in the first place. That being: Don’t ride where SUVs are present.

Spread the word…

News Cycle: Boise’s new cycling laws, Fainting can kill, Kolelinia explained, B.C. scammer or hero?

In News Cycle, Rider Down on January 14, 2010 at 9:34 am

Passed: New cycling safety laws in Boise.

Given a pass: Woman driver who killed mother on bike cleared of wrongdoing because, she says, she fainted.

Kolelinia: A severe lapse of judgment, marked by bouts with insanity, while riding skinny half pipe suspended 12 feet over traffic in crowded metropolitan areas. Curiously high rates of occurrence in architecture and urban planning professions.

Time for Mountain Bike Action to do some um, er, investigative reporting? The Vancouver B.C. scammer arrested for collecting stolen bikes under the pretense of returning them to owners but actually selling them for a profit … turns out that same guy was featured in Mountain Bike Action magazine as a “Local Hero.” Not that MBA is backtracking…the charges “may or may not be true,” its post declares. We may or may not be impressed by such reportorial enterprise. Could it be that MBA‘s article led to the guy’s detection and arrest, and this might be an as-yet unrealized notch on their belt? Bears investigating, anyway.

Ride and Prejudice, Part II: When an error goes viral

In Bicycle advocacy, Obama Bikes on August 31, 2009 at 12:25 am

The links are flying on a (supposedly) new study that (supposedly) found drivers are to blame for 9 out of 10 bike–car accidents. This situation cries out for journalistic followup, but for now let’s see if we can clear the air a bit.

A Toronto study we reported on (along with Freakonomics, which was then picked up by The New York Times and went viral from there) had some interesting findings regarding car-bike accidents. Unfortunately it got conflated with a different, and relatively dated, New York report that found drivers are at fault for as much as 90 percent of bike/pedestrian-car collisions.

First, the Toronto study, which looked at bike-car collisions in Toronto police reports.

“The most common type of crash in this study involved a motorist entering an intersection and either failing to stop properly or proceeding before it was safe to do so. The second most common crash type involved a motorist overtaking unsafely. The third involved a motorist opening a door onto an oncoming cyclist.”

Fair enough. Sounds reasonable to any experienced cyclist. No one seems to question the Toronto findings. But there’s no “90 percent” figure in them, either.

Instead, the 90 percent comes from a New York study referred to in passing by the Toronto report. And the New York study has some shall we say issues.

First off, it was based on 1997 statistics (and published in March, 1999). Not to diminish its findings from the get-go, that’s quite a while back. Hopefully progress has been made — but let’s continue.

The study, called “Killed By Automobile” and written by Charles Komanoff and Right of Way, “a group of New Yorkers who are organizing for safe streets and for the rights of walkers and bike-riders,” analyzed the year’s fatalities for “culpability” (based “largely” on New York State traffic law). The data showed that in 22 percent of the cases, culpability could not be determined. Setting aside those cases, the study found drivers to be “strictly or largely culpable” in 74 percent of accidents, “partly culpable” in 16 percent, and not culpable in just 10 percent.

Two things should be noted about the data, however. First, it incorporated pedestrian accidents as well as cycling. Typically more pedestrians — quite a few more — are killed by cars than cyclists. Although today the assumption is that texting and iPods and whatnot distracting pedestrians are to blame, statistically the difference has been fairly consistent historically going well back.

Another factor is that there are simply more pedestrians than cyclists. Whatever the reason, to lump walkers in with riders kind of jimmies the New York study from the get-go.

The New York data involve 223 pedestrian fatalities and 19 cyclist deaths. If you break out only the cyclist deaths, drivers were culpable 70 percent of the time (not 90 percent).

Second, as Richard Masoner pointed out on Cyclelicio.us, the study acknowledges it “frames crash culpability primarily in terms of driver action” rather than that of the pedestrian or cyclist. This is a bit of a head-scratcher and again begs followup. Presumably culpability should be neutral rather than “framed,” and should emerge organically from analysis of the accident itself (as it does time and again in the case studies cited in the report). The New York study, however, says it places the onus for being safe on the driver, because drivers can kill pedestrians and cyclists, but pedestrians and cyclists cannot kill drivers.

True. But to incorporate a bias into a statistical analysis based on that reasoning to my mind muddies the waters. And needlessly so. The data seem to impugn driver behavior clearly enough without any “framing.”

It’s worth reading the full New York study to get a feel for what pedestrians and cyclists are up against (veteran cyclists will not be surprised). Discounting its emotionally charged prose, the study makes a compelling case for better police analysis and judicial-system followup of walking and cycling accidents involving cars.

And that, bottom line, is why the 10 percent figure got such wide play. Skewed as it might be, it reflects the reality of experience by avid and longtime cyclists.

Of the handful of fatal cycling accidents in Seattle so far this year (which has been a bad year for cyclists v. cars), only one involved a clear-cut mistake, or at-fault action, by the cyclist. In the other three, cyclists by all accounts had the right of way. They were simply mowed down due to “driver error.”

Granted, that’s only 75 percent. But yeah, we’re in the same territory as the New York study of yore.

Morbidly enough, there are several recent “life-threatening” injury accidents — that may turn into fatalities — where the cyclist apparently was not at fault (they are still under investigation). We may make 90 percent yet.

The point — and the reason I originally linked to the Toronto account (incorporating the reference to the New York study) — is this: Society carries a prejudice, regrettably amplified by police investigations, that automatically blames a cyclist in a car-bike collision. There are many reasons for this, but it’s simply wrong. It’s not statistically valid. It marginalizes cycling as a legitimate form of transportation and is inimical to progress for cycling as a healthy and environmentally beneficial alternative to the automobile. It vitiates legislative remedies to protect cyclists. It essentially excuses and perpetuates actions which, had they involved a second driver instead of a cyclist, would result in manslaughter or homicide charges being filed.

The Toronto and New York studies may not be perfect, but until we get something better, they’re a useful step forward in recasting public perception of car-bike accidents. Hopefully studies are under way now that will further put the issue in statistically and scientifically sound perspective. The growth of cycling advocacy — both on the road and off — attests to the exploding momentum for changing society’s tired old prejudices toward cycling.

Links: The Toronto report. The New York study (click on “Research” and “Killed By Automobile”). My initial mention. The Freakonomics reference picked up by The New York Times. Cyclelicio.us gut-check. Dangerous times in Seattle for bikes.