By SOPHIE EGAN
JUNE 13, 2013, 12:01 AM
It took only a few days for reports of the first cycling accident involving New York’s new bike sharing program to begin circulating. But experts and growing experience from bike sharing programs in other cities make clear that bicycling can be a safe mode of transportation, and the presence of a bike sharing program is a boon to the safety of all bicyclists.
“A number of studies have looked at increased biking, and the result is that the more people bike in a community, the less likely they are to collide with motorists,” said David Vlahov, the dean of nursing at the University of California, San Francisco. “It is likely due to motorists becoming more aware or expecting more to be riding bicycles.”
Still, about 800 deaths and more than half a million emergency room visits related to bicycling occur in the United States each year. Head injuries account for about two-thirds of hospitalizations and three-fourths of deaths, said Dr. Frederick P. Rivara, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington, who conducted some of the seminal work on bike helmets in the mid-1980s.
Helmets would prevent about 85 percent of head injuries, he says.
Knowing about common dangers, as well as avoiding distractions, maintaining safe speeds and obeying traffic signals, can also help prevent fractures, lacerations and more.
Brendan Kevenides, a personal injury lawyer in Chicago who exclusively handles bicycle-related accidents, said that a large majority of his cases involve “dooring,” the all-too-common event in which a parked driver flings opens a door, creating a sudden obstacle for an oncoming cyclist. Incidents like these, along with drivers’ failure to give bikers the right of way, account for nearly half of all bicycle-vehicle accidents.
“The injuries can be significant,” said Mr. Kevenides, who works with a group called LOOK! Chicago that coalesced after a bicyclist swerved to avoid an opening door and was fatally struck by a truck last fall.
In the Netherlands, where biking has long been part of the urban fabric, people are taught in driver education courses to reach across their bodies and open the driver’s door with the right hand, which forces the driver to look over the left shoulder to see if any bicyclists are coming.
“It is kind of an automatism; it’s in your system,” said Otto van Boggelen, program manager for Fietsberaad, a Dutch center of expertise on bicycling policy. “You have to be conscientious that there might be cyclists everywhere — and there are cyclists everywhere.”
Efforts to prevent injuries to cyclists are gaining traction in places like Chicago, where stickers that read, “LOOK! Before Opening Your Door,” will soon be placed on passenger windows in all 7,000 taxis, according to the program’s coordinator, Charlie Short, bike safety and education manager for the Chicago Department of Transportation. (Cabs in Boston were outfitted with similar stickers last month.) The city also includes bike safety in its training for all new cabdrivers, he says.
Last week, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance doubling the fines for people who open doors in cyclists’ path: now $300 when the move interferes with a bicycle without incident, and $1,000 when it causes an accident.
Bicyclists, meanwhile, are advised to heed the “door zone,” biking roughly four feet to the left of parked cars. (For this reason, many bike safety advocates favor back-in angle parking.)
It’s also important for cyclists to stay focused. A recent study in the journal Accident Analysis & Prevention found that bicyclists who text or talk on the phone or with a fellow bicyclist are more than twice as likely to engage in unsafe biking behaviors.
“You’re more likely to do silly things on your bike if you’re using a secondary device,” said Kate Terzano, a lecturer at the Arizona State University School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, who led the study. “And by silly I mean enter an intersection without looking.”
Ultimately, most agree that creating bicycle-friendly environments is the best way to prevent bicycle-related injuries and deaths.
“Any solution to bicyclist safety should focus on preventing collisions from taking place, not seeking to minimize the damage after a collision has occurred,” says Ian Walker, a psychologist at the University of Bath in England who has done pioneering research on bicycle safety. In one experiment, he rode a bicycle while dressed as a man, and then while dressed as a woman, and found that drivers gave less passing room to men, a finding that was confirmed in subsequent studies by others in Florida and Taiwan. He also found that drivers gave him less space when he was wearing a helmet.
“If we are worrying about bicycle helmets, rather than how to stop people from hitting cyclists with cars and trucks in the first place, then we are utterly missing the point,” Dr. Walker says.
Transportation departments across the United States have begun to respond with creative improvements for safer roadways. The National Association of City Transportation Officials has developed an exhaustive urban bikeway design guide based on a worldwide literature review, experiences from its 22 member cities and collaboration with traffic engineers, city planners and academic researchers. The guide informed new citywide bike safety plans for Seattle and San Francisco.
Recommendations include protected or buffered bike lanes, colored pavement, shared lane markings, special intersection signals and detectors for bicycles, and bike boxes, the painted areas before intersections that allow bicyclists to get in front of the line of cars at a red light.
In addition to infrastructure, education and policy play a role.
The League of American Bicyclists named Colorado the second most bike-friendly state in America (after Washington), in part for being “a model for bicycling traffic laws.” (New York is No. 43.)
For instance, in Boulder, one of only four communities in the United States awarded the league’s top designation, 76 to 99 percent of arterial streets include dedicated bicycle facilities. More than 90 percent of the city’s elementary and middle schools provide bicycle education.
Until people and places change, city bike sharing programs may be a critical step on the path to improved bicycle safety.
“The single best thing that can happen for the safety of the individual cyclist is to grow the cycling community,” says Mr. Kevenides of LOOK! Chicago. “It’s about increasing visibility and awareness.”
And just in time: Chicago’s bike sharing program starts this month.