Another Bike Lane Failure… Or not…


A cyclist was hit and killed this morning. It appears from the Tribune article that a truck traveling in the same direction executed a “right hook” resulting in the collision and death. Left turns are sometimes made more manageable using bike boxes. But right turns seem to be especially troublesome, especially when trucks and vans are involved. The drivers have a natural “blind spot” due to their hood height.

Chicago has a few of these bikes boxes in selected areas. But the concept is still evolving. Some of these are being used for cyclists making right turns too. But their presence has not always made a difference in safety. European-styled segregated bike lanes are probably a better bet because they reduce or eliminate intersections where bikes and autos contend for the right-of-way.

Bicycle infrastructure can help but not eliminate accidents. The death of Kathryn Rickson is a sad reminder of this fact. Bike lanes are not the entire answer to the problem of fatalities. And neither is the clever use of terms other than “accidents” when describing a cycling fatality due to a collision with an automobile. I for one entirely reject the notion that the bigger vehicle is always at fault. If that were the case then cat owners who have managed to tread on the tails and paws of their pets are candidates for animal abuse charges.

On the ChainLink one respondent to this story of the death of a rider seemed reasonable:

Reply by Lisa Curcio 6 hours ago

Another sad and senseless death.

But, the circumstandes do not surprise me–the right turn situation both east and westbound at that intersection is difficult. There always seem to be cars parked very close to Ashland. Cars/trucks cannot get over early and often end up turning almost from the center lane. We either get behind the cars in the through lane or ride between parked cars and the cars in the through lane almost to Ashland. It is a place for us to be especially vigilant.

Overall, though, Augusta is a pretty good street to ride on. I don’t know what would be better in that area.

Yes, the death is sad but I do not agree that it is senseless. I would describe a death resulting from a drive-by shooting as senseless (i.e. without discernible meaning or purpose) but a vehicular accident is not an intentional act without some discernible reason. Accidents happen because something about the situation brought two physical bodies into close enough proximity that the energy release from the sudden deceleration kills.

When Kathryn Rickson died she was crushed because she was in the blind spot of a driver waiting to make a right turn. Another cyclist was also killed when she was dragged under the wheels of a right turning truck. The driver in this second situation was acquitted of deliberately leaving the scene of the accident. Fortunately the DA in the Rickson case realized that the blind spot for the driver was the problem. Activists are making a move to have special mirrors mounted on trucks to prevent them from not seeing riders alongside their cab areas.

Active Transportation Alliance released a statement:

Submitted by espotts on Wed, 10/31/2012 – 3:33pm

One death is too many

Another person has died on Chicago’s streets in traffic. Nearly every day, people are killed or injured when walking or biking, and today a family is mourning someone who won’t be coming home.

We urge everyone, no matter how you are getting around, to obey the rules of the road and respect each other as people, real people. Those other people in cars or riding bikes or walking across the street are someone’s mother, daughter or aunt…just like you are to your family.

The news coverage will call this an “accident,” but it’s really a fatal crash. Crashes are preventable by safe choices, obeying the law, and by engineering streets to be safe for everyone using them.

It’s tragic that someone lost their life in a crash today.

Our thoughts are with the family that is mourning this unfortunate loss of life.

The problem with the approach that ATA has taken is that it deflects the responsibility for resolving these accidents (I reject the use of the euphemism “fatal crash”) onto the backs of the designers of streets and cycling infrastructure. No amount of infrastructure can ever remove the reality of  “one death is too many”. Crashes will continue to occur after every single street in America has been painted green and all of the PVC piping in the world has been use to line “buffered lanes”. Green paint and PVC piping offer little more than window dressing. The underlying problem is that humans are incapable of functioning at as high a level as robots.

We have good days and bad days. And we make the problem even worse by not recognizing our physical and mental limitations. All of the best designers of transportation corridors have been hard at work redesigning highways for the last 80 years. Yet we still have accidents on the highways. We still have people who feel obliged to complain about having to use seat belts and to avoid drinking while driving. We have public service messages about “buzz driving”, “designated drivers”, avoiding “texting” while driving and generally using your cell phone while driving and nothing seems to work 100% of the time.

And that is the real shame of it all. If anything is truly senseless it is why humans avoid doing things that they know to be harmful. We know that helmets like seat belts are intended to protect only the person wearing them. Failing to do so only puts their life and health in jeopardy. And yet we manage to make seat belts mandatory and knowledgeable cyclists argue against using helmets. The two actions when viewed as the work of a single community are diametrically opposed.

But cyclists have become inured to their own callousness. A forum called EveryBlock hosted a thread about this most recent accident:

Rick P.
Can someone please answer me this… Why do bike riders never follow the rules of the road that motorist do. Stopping for red lights or stop signs, staying on there bike lane one at a time not all bunched up or cutting in front of moving cars. The bad thing here is if us motorist hit them its our fault. last thing i want to do is hurt anyone but geeez talk about people who think own the roads. Bike riders should be made to buy licence plates n stickers and get insurance. aaah more city revenue..woo hoo.

The response he got was as follows:

Julie S

Rolling Stops?

Rick as a cyclist, I think the best thing I have heard about why we do rolling stops at signs is that as we are under our own momentium, having to come to a complete stop, when it is safe to go (ie for me that means no other traffic with the right of way) it would be like a driver turning off their car, stepping out for a second and then restarting the car.

And as to why sometimes we have to go out of the bike lane, it is often because, like on Damen, the bike lane is in such horrible shape that is is safer to come out into traffic to ride safely. The Elston lanes and some others also have flood areas. Also, getting a little ahead of traffic allows us to set some safety space when traversing a narrow spot (like NB Damen right now) so we don’t get squeezed into a curb where the pavement is often dangerous or we could have an accident.

And if cars are slow or stopped, it makes sense on a bike to ride past the traffic to get to the front to move when the light changes. There is often more than enough room for car and bike.

But having ridden all over this city, I can say that even when I bike in “protected” bike lanes I have been nearly hit by drivers texting and looking down instead of driving. There are decent drivers and bad cyclists and vice versa. Because we are very vulnerable out there, ie we have no metal protection we (at least most of us) are very aware of our safety. While it may not always seem that way to you, we know better than anyone that it does not take much for us to get harmed.

So please be patient to cyclists, look before opening your door or changing lanes, use your turn signals and also come out and bike as well, it’s a great way to get around and have fun.

Julie is offering up the same tired excuse for why cyclists do not want to stop even when it is for stop lights, not just stop signs. They feel as if the loss of momentum ruins their travel times. It is a “lie” to equate coming to a complete stop with shutting off the motor of your car. It is merely doing what motorists have to do and that is stop all forward momentum. What is problematic for upright riders is that barring the use of training wheels or the skill to do a track stand they have to put their feet down.

That of course evidently cuts into the “fun” that Julie details in her last sentence. But if riding a bicycle is such a great thing the very last thing anyone should mind is having their travel time on the bicycle extended. That in fact should be the one thing that everyone should be aiming for in the first instance, riding longer. You know out in the fresh air and sunshine and all.

Another response caught my eye:

Katrina A. four-year Chicagoan; educator, editor, & writer
I am very sorry for the loss of this person’s life – this is the corner on which I live; my husband and I are both cyclists and do not drive a car. I have not had the displeasure of having my safety threatened like Katie or having a nightmarish accident like this lost soul. Perhaps I’m just lucky (duly knocking on wood), but I am EXTREMELY cautious on my bike. That’s not to say I won’t cut corners here and there, but only when I’m sure of my safety. When biking, I find it’s best to assume that the worst will happen.

In response to Rick, fully seconding Julie S’s remarks, I have seen plenty of irresponsible biking and driving, and when I’m doing both I try to be patient and aware of all possibly hairy situations around me. I recognize this attitude in others from time to time, and it always feels good when someone motions or says, “go ahead, I can wait,” or “please, after you.” The crux of the matter is that most people are trying to move so quickly from one place to another that one simple principle is abandoned, a principle we should have learned as children. Patience should be cultivated as the number one mindset for drivers of any sort. The hurry and subsequent agitation when someone gets in a driver’s way is to blame for most of the horn-honking situations I’ve seen.

“The bad thing here is if us motorist hit them its our fault.” Rick P. – I find it’s missing the point to split Chicago’s wide world of transportation into camps. Bicyclists are motorists and motorists are bicyclists, the mentality of commuters doesn’t change because of what vehicle they utilize. I’m not sure if you’re referring to an actual law regarding fault at the scene of a car/bike accident. I’ve generally believed that the bigger vehicle has the responsibility of their size to consider – like a semi on the highway not taking the same risks as a sports car might be able to get away with.

We are in fact split into two or three “camps”. Every single time that a cyclist tries to justify their scofflaw behavior they are in essence saying that while you a motorist or pedestrian must follow the rules of the road, I the entitled cyclist am part of the camp that is exempt from these petty actions. We cyclists are the ones who are making things worse when it comes to splitting up the transportation groups into camps.

Yet another really “adult” response that is highly welcomed:

I am a pedestrian, public transportation user, automobile driver and ex-cyclist–in that order. My husband cycles to work, so I have skin in the game. Cars and trucks aren’t going away. Bikes aren’t going away. And. I honestly don’t believe most motorists want to kill cyclists, just as I don’t believe the cyclists who have nearly knocked me down in intersections wanted to kill me. Moving fast does something odd to your brain, especially if you have 2 tons of steel surrounding you.

An inordinate amount of recent cycling deaths have been caused by truck roll-overs. If you fall or get knocked off of your bike, you may end up under the wheels of vehicle that weighs anywhere between 6,000-25,000 lbs. A helmet won’t help in this situation. A commenter on the Trib article included an informative post:
Most trucks have a substantial blind spot. Many commercial vehicles even include a graphic on the back of the truck informing other motorists (and cyclists!) that past a certain point, they can’t see you. The onus of safety is on the cyclists in this case. If you look up and you can’t see his/her face in the side mirror, they can’t see you.

In the near future, I’d like to see a more epidemiological approach to biking safety, with bike lanes removed from motor vehicle lanes, formalized training and licensing of cyclists, perhaps even the development of body armor for those who have to bike in high traffic areas. Many cyclists resist the idea of more formal training and licensing, but I’d like to suggest that it actually legitimizes cyclists in the eyes of those who only drive motor vehicles, and also in the eyes of legislators who create bike lanes and protect your safety.

This response hits a home run from my perspective. Elie is not making excuses here and acknowledges that many of us at one time or another are part of each of the “sectors” or “camps” that represent the various transportation alternatives. If you want to secure the safety of cyclists you have to remove them from motoring traffic patterns altogether. At the very least you have to allow them to deal with traffic in limited situations where the speed differential (as dictated by the posted speed limit) is less dramatic.

Bicycles on streets where the posted limit is on 20-25 MPH have a much better chance of being able to cope. Drivers hate having to travel that slow but so what. I vote Elie for transportation chief since she seems to understand the problem from an “adult” perspective.