Orange County cyclist deaths

QUESTION: Does bike rider courtesy lead to safer roads for cyclists?

I don’t track cyclist fatalities in Orange County, California, but I was prompted to do a quick survey. Here’s what I’ve found (with help from Biking In LA). (And please stay tuned: there’s a point to this list…)

January 2007: DUI hit and run.

July 2007: Camry vs bike rider in drug rehab.

August 2007: High, texting drunk Driver vs 14 year old kid on a bike.

June 2008: Driver lost control and crossed the center line.

April 2009: Guy biking home from work hit from behind and killed in a hit and run.

October 2009: Drunk driver vs 80 year old woman on a bike.

December 2009: Inattentive driver rear ends cyclist in bike lane.

December 2009: Monster Truck vs 9 year old in the crosswalk.

April 2010: Bus vs sidewalk cyclist.

May 2010: SUV driver drifts off the road and hits cyclist from behind.

July 2010: Wrong way truck driver drives into cyclist. This was a club ride fatality.

August 2010: Cyclist hit from behind.

This is not a scientific sampling of the roughly 80 cyclist fatalities reported in Orange County over the past five years, but we have an idea of the flavor: mostly motorist at fault and a few where the cyclist contributed. There are a couple of club roadies, but most of the fatalities seem to be “folk” cyclists.

So I’m puzzled when avid cyclist David Whiting points at a roomful of club riders and tells them “cyclists need to clean up their act” before we’re ready to focus on driver safety. Because, after all, when “packs [of cyclists] block streets, they scare the bejeebers out of drivers.”

I’m sure the monster truck driver was terrified of the little nine year old he crushed on the road.

I’m a big believer in being responsible for my own safety. There are certainly actions we can take to reduce the risk of crashing and dying. We as cyclists should be courteous, and we should share the road by riding legally, but pelotons of cyclists hogging the road and blowing stop signs is not a bike safety issue in Orange County or anywhere else. Will single file riding do anything to prevent cyclist fatalities in Orange County? Should a bike club really suspend membership for rolling a stop sign, which is something that 97% of motorists are also guilty of? Can we also call on the AAA to suspend benefits for their members who are observed violating the rules of the road and not exercising common courtesy on the road?

Mr. Whiting (the author of this piece) is a nice guy, I like him, and I appreciate what he’s trying to do regarding road etiquette. I really think he has the wrong focus, however, on cyclist safety. The handful of times I’ve been hit by a car, I was always riding lawfully on a properly equipped bicycle. The two times I’ve been hit at night, I had plenty of lights and reflectors. My only sin, perhaps, is too much courtesy on my part: The two times I’ve been hooked maybe could have been avoided if I was a little more assertive in my lane positioning.

Your thoughts on this?

30 Comments

  • Greg
    September 16, 2010 - 12:49 am | Permalink

    Nice article. I definitely agree with your point. I would like to make a minor correction, the “wrong way driver” was a gardner truck parked in the wrong place but I would put most of the fault on the cyclist who were bombing around a bend in the road at such a speed they couldn’t get stopped in time. It doesn’t invalidate your comment though.

  • Greg
    September 16, 2010 - 12:49 am | Permalink

    Nice article. I definitely agree with your point. I would like to make a minor correction, the “wrong way driver” was a gardner truck parked in the wrong place but I would put most of the fault on the cyclist who were bombing around a bend in the road at such a speed they couldn’t get stopped in time. It doesn’t invalidate your comment though.

  • Greg
    September 16, 2010 - 12:49 am | Permalink

    Nice article. I definitely agree with your point. I would like to make a minor correction, the “wrong way driver” was a gardner truck parked in the wrong place but I would put most of the fault on the cyclist who were bombing around a bend in the road at such a speed they couldn’t get stopped in time. It doesn’t invalidate your comment though.

  • Anonymous
    September 16, 2010 - 1:08 am | Permalink

    Word! I love seeing you all riled up, Fritz! :)

  • Roger
    September 16, 2010 - 2:14 am | Permalink
  • September 16, 2010 - 2:33 am | Permalink

    Thanks Greg – that makes sense, and I’ve seen similar situations (although w/o the fatality) so I can picture what you’re talking about.

  • captainkickstand
    September 16, 2010 - 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for asking. My thoughts are kind of complex and possibly self-contradictory. On one hand, I am tired of the “I ride a bike, too” crowd of cycling apologists who are all too willing to condemn cyclists for their perceived bad behavior while remaining willing to excuse or ignore deadly behavior by drivers. The story you linked to about the monster truck driver who killed the little boy illustrates the dichotomy perfectly: the police call it an “ugly ugly accident” and refuse to cite the driver, while the narrative focuses in part on how awful he must feel. At the same time, a cycling group riding two abreast is somehow a serious crime.

    On the other hand, more education for, and better behavior by, cyclists (particularly kids and club riders) is in order. We have a pretty loose “club” ride on Sunday mornings and believe me, it’s a chore even to keep people two abreast and near the right side of the road. And anything goes with the kids around here (New Haven, Connecticut).

    We have sadly had a few high-profile rider and pedestrians traffic deaths in the last couple of years but I have to concede that in each case I can recall, the behavior of the rider or the pedestrian contributed in some way to the crash. For example, one boy made a left turn on his bike directly across oncoming traffic. His fault? Perhaps, in the strictest legal sense but the speed of the vehicle has to also be taken into account when determining cause. If the driver had done as we are all taught to do in driver’s ed and remained alert to unexpected behavior by children, the outcome might have been different.

    Nevertheless, it’s ridiculous for a cyclist to assert that we are “not ready” to call for driver safety and to seriously propose some system by which drivers can report cyclists to their clubs or teams for sanction.

  • Jack
    September 16, 2010 - 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Agree. The cycling apologists are too willing to admit to the smallest infractions. For every cycling misdeed I see 100x as many motorists doing much worse. As a parent with four boys (all raised on bikes), two are still riding daily to school and I deeply worry about their safety every morning, every afternoon.

  • Anonymous
    September 16, 2010 - 1:31 pm | Permalink

    I read that piece and was surprised at how singularly focused it was on cyclists’ actions.

    A jerk cyclist doesn’t help anyone, but at least here in Tucson, running stop signs and riding two abreast (not a jerk move in my book) isn’t what is getting cyclists hurt and killed.

    Our BAC has studied collision reports for the last 3 years and found some interesting details.

    1) Something like 30 percent of the serious collisions in Tucson have been with people riding on the sidewalk or riding the wrong way, yet they make up something like 3 percent of the cycling population based on our bike count.

    2) The other cause of serious injuries or death is being hit from behind. There seem to be two main problems that lead to a cyclist being hit from behind.

    One is distracted driving. I’m sure you have all seen it. You look inside a car and they are looking at their phone instead or the road.

    The other is many drivers absolute refusal to slow down. I’ve been trying out some of the residential bike routes in Tucson now that I have a 10-month old I’ve been riding with.

    There are far fewer cars on those streets, but on the rare occasion that there are two cars heading in opposite directions the driver overtaking us will not slow down and let the oncoming car pass and then pass us by swinging out to the left.

    They almost always try to squeeze by us. The ironic thing is that once they actually pass us, then they swing out wide to the left.

    Here is another example of motorists refusal to slow down. There is an extremely popular road for cyclists with nice wide bike lanes in Tucson. It connects to a shared use path on one end and the University on the other.

    They recently redid a two-mile section and decided to add some traffic calming elements to it. They put in medians and made the road bend around the medians. The idea is that if the road wasn’t straight, they would slow down to follow the road.

    As it turns out, all they do is speed around the medians and find themselves cruising in the bike lane for a block.

    Cyclists play a part, but we aren’t killing other people. If we truly want it to be safer for us in the roads, we need to start curbing speeding and distracted drivers.

  • David Henderson
    September 16, 2010 - 4:22 pm | Permalink

    I think this is a good article and a good discussion to have. Calmness and commonsense are very helpful when dealing with irate motor operators.

    I am not an authority on bike safety, but I have learned a few survival tactics from riding many thousands of miles on the road. I am sharing them via the address below. Any additions are most welcome and might save someone else some skin or more.

    http://myworldfromabicycle.blogspot.com/2010/08/bike-safe-my-survival-tactics-for-road.html

  • Steve
    September 16, 2010 - 5:48 pm | Permalink

    My thoughts are that it’s not either/or, it’s both/and. We certainly need to work on etiquette, while also making it clear that safety is a two-way street and we are much more vulnerable. To me they are not mutually exclusive. We can and should be devoting our attention to both.

  • jr
    September 16, 2010 - 6:08 pm | Permalink

    dead on.

  • September 16, 2010 - 6:50 pm | Permalink

    I am naturally inclined to be very aggressive toward rude and dangerous drivers. Seeing what I think is an upswing in cases of road rage, however, I’m trying to ratchet things down a bit.

    That being said, assertive riding is probably safer riding. In terms of public discourse, cyclists have little for which to apologize. For every case of an irresponsible rider, there are a thousand we could trot about about irresponsible drivers. And it has been a long time since I’ve heard of a cyclist crushing a car or SUV. I think we all know who usually gets hurt when cars and bikes try to share the same spot on the pavement, regardless who is at fault.

  • September 16, 2010 - 7:00 pm | Permalink

    I’m pretty sick and tired of being blamed for others bad behavior or as an excuse not to make streets safer. It smacks of the woman being blamed for the rape because she wore tight clothing.

    There are lots of people riding bikes on the road. Some of them safely, some not. I can control how I ride. I can encourage others to ride safely, but the barrier to entry for riding a bike is pretty low. Let’s educate people and make facilities that make it easy and safe for cyclists to interact safely instead of wagging fingers. All that does is make one person feel superior and create an atmosphere of “they had it coming” when a tragedy happens.

  • September 16, 2010 - 8:36 pm | Permalink

    “complex and self-contradictory” probably reflects my own thinking as well :-).

  • September 16, 2010 - 8:39 pm | Permalink

    I see similar “gotta get past the slow cyclist” behavior here as well. I’m mostly of the “no harm no foul” train of thought, but it infuriates me when I see dangerous driving around children. Children don’t have nearly the control and traffic awareness that more experienced cyclists might have.

  • September 16, 2010 - 8:39 pm | Permalink

    I was expecting a comment from you suggesting I should calm down :-)

  • danceralamode
    September 16, 2010 - 9:39 pm | Permalink

    I disagree. We should not be courteous “as cyclists”. We should follow the law just as motorists do. The CVC provides for how to safely change lanes and how to safely pass other vehicles, where to ride in the street, and when to pull over when traffic is behind you (on a two lane road with 4 or more cars behind you). However, if you want to argue for courtesy, then the group of people you should look to and advise to be courteous is the HUMAN RACE. You can’t single one group of people out based on how they transport themselves or their job or the race or whatever and tell them that they need to be courteous because someone could kill them. As human beings, we should all respect life and tolerate other human beings without threatening them with the loss of their life. ANYONE CAN CHOSE TO KILL ME FOR A PERCEIVED SLIGHT WITH ANY KIND OF WEAPON. To make this argument against cyclists is misguided and offensive.

    I am so very tired of people telling cyclists they should be courteous. What they really mean is that whenever you happen to pull up behind me, you think I should magically cease to exist or instantly hop out of your way, regardless of the danger to me. Courteous is this code word for meaning we should always yield the roadway to drivers. Well, I’m very sorry if you do not know how to operate your vehicle in a safe manner and don’t know how to slow down when approaching traffic in front of you. I’m sorry for you that you don’t know how to execute a safe overtaking of another road user. I’m sorry that you don’t understand how to share the road. But the fact that you would have to execute a safe overtaking (pass of another vehicle) or use your brakes, does not mean I’m being discourteous. (I’m referring to those who argue for courtesy when I say “you” not necessarily this author.)

    I think we do ourselves and the fight for safer cycling a huge disservice when we focus on courtesy. You cannot legislate courtesy. You cannot cite courtesy. Let’s focus on the law, our rights, and how to improve driver and cyclist education so that we all share the road.

    Note: I am not in any way saying that I approve of people being rude or aggressive or violent on the road. I’m saying that arguing that going out of our way to be “courteous” is a pointless and time-wasting argument.

  • Anonymous
    September 16, 2010 - 9:42 pm | Permalink

    Well said!

    I wish I could have said all of these things to the guy who honked at me because I was impeding traffic (his speeding) in down town Tucson today. Unfortunately he drove away before I could educate him further.

  • Scott H.
    September 16, 2010 - 10:04 pm | Permalink

    I ride three main roads every day in LA – Main St., thru Venice / Santa Monica, Abbot Kinney thru Venice, and Venice Blvd. to Culver City. That’s 2 bike lanes and a sharrow.

    Over 5 months in that 7.5 mile stretch, I’ve seen people regularly double-parked in the bike lane, been hooked multiple times, and watched cars weaving INTO the bike lane. People are illegally on their phones and texting. I’ve been cut off at least half-a-dozen times by people going through a right turn lane (which continues the bike lane on the other side of the street). In the 3 blocks on Main St. that are NOT a bike lane, I’ve had people speed by me — within inches of me — while I was only a foot from parked cars.

    My favorite was the “Amazing LA Tours” bus driver that came into the bike lane within inches of me, only to catch up to him at a light and find that he’s talking on his cell phone (not hands-free).

    There’s a lot of “entitled” drivers out there. Truth is most people behind the wheel feel like cyclists are just another road hazard, and will treat them will the same disdain.

    So, after that rant, what’s the solution? Stiffer fines for cell phone use while in the car, tougher laws regarding hitting / endangering cyclists, and — for those who have multiple driving infractions — retesting both in writing and driving.

    Also (and this it the Transporation Dept.’s fault more than anyone), if there is a right lane separated by a sold white line (regardless if it’s a bike lane, but ESPECIALLY if it’s a bike lane), “Right Turn Only” arrows should be installed. If a driver fails to turn right in the lane, the fine is the same as going through a stop light (which is almost $400) because of endangerment.

    That’s my 2 cents worth.

  • September 16, 2010 - 10:12 pm | Permalink

    Bingo.

    I’ll never understand the “until us bad cyclists follow the rules, we can expect no protection from the law” nonsense. I’d love to apply that logic in the other direction: “Until you reckless motorists start following the speed limits, you’ve got no business on the road!”

    That’ll solve all of my cycling safety issues in one fail swoop.

  • Anonymous
    September 16, 2010 - 10:30 pm | Permalink

    Traffic studies have shown that cyclists who obey the law cause the drivers around them to pay less attention, and are thus in more danger than law-breaking cyclists who don’t hand-signal or obviously don’t obey traffic laws – the drivers around them are on-edge enough to actually stay alert to the cyclists’ actions. I don’t encourage reckless cycling, but I find more aggressive cycling does keep drivers’ attention a bit more than overly-passive cycling does.

    Another worrying statistic: drivers are more careful around cyclists who DON’T wear helmets.

    There’s a lot about this in Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us). The bottom line is that in a car you are sheltered and isolated from the world around you, and you recognize other cars as ‘cars’, not drivers. Bikes are recognized as ‘cyclists’, not bikes. It’s a weird way that our heads are wired, and communication is difficult on a certain level because we never see each other face-to-face (unless collision is imminent) and the lexicon of taillight signals and hand-signals that are universally known is far less than what’s probably necessary for real communication and understanding between ALL occupants of the road.

  • September 16, 2010 - 11:09 pm | Permalink

    @irkdesu — This is intriguing. Could you point or reference these studies you mention?

  • September 17, 2010 - 1:26 am | Permalink

    Where can these traffic studies be found?

  • Anonymous
    September 17, 2010 - 4:36 am | Permalink

    Check out the book I mentioned in my comment – they’re cited in it, and it’s pretty early on in the book that I read about it.

  • danceralamode
    September 17, 2010 - 6:38 am | Permalink

    It’s not worth it. If I’ve learned anything, there’s two places you can’t educate an unqualified motorist: online comments and on the road.

  • September 17, 2010 - 5:00 pm | Permalink

    I’ve read Vanderbilt’s book a couple of times and I don’t remember that part. I’ll look again, but can you give me a hint on what section I can find this in?

  • September 17, 2010 - 5:00 pm | Permalink

    I’ve read Vanderbilt’s book a couple of times and I don’t remember that part. I’ll look again, but can you give me a hint on what section I can find this in?

  • September 17, 2010 - 5:00 pm | Permalink

    I’ve read Vanderbilt’s book a couple of times and I don’t remember that part. I’ll look again, but can you give me a hint on what section I can find this in?

  • Anonymous
    September 17, 2010 - 5:05 pm | Permalink

    Weird, I’m pretty sure it’s in the intro or first chapter. I’ll take another look when I get home tonight.

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