Another Fatal Crash: Is it safe to ride a bike at night?

Tom Held of the Journal Sentinel Blog Off the Couch has more news on this tragic crash.  You can read his full report here. It seems the driver of the car was legally blind in one eye and required to wear glasses when driving, but was not.  It also appears she received three cell phone calls just prior to the crash.  She has been charged with negligent homicide. 

In a recent post, I pointed out the statistics show that riding a bicycle is generally a very safe activity.  Sadly, I must tell you that early this morning a person riding a bicycle at night in Pleasant Prairie was killed by a person who reportedly admitted to talking on a cell phone and closing her eyes while driving. In the Fox 6 television news report, two cyclists suggest it is dangerous to ride a bicycle at night, but is it? Unfortunately WordPress will not let me embed the video from this source, so you will have to watch it at the link below.

This is the new report about the crash from WITI-TV

A 21-year-old Kenosha man riding his bike is hit by a car driven by a teenager in Pleasant Prairie. That 18-year-old is under arrest and facing criminal charges.
The man was hit while riding his bicycle just before one o’clock Sunday morning. In a statement, police say 18-year-old Quashae D. Taylor of Kenosha is responsible for the accident. Investigators say Taylor told them she hit something, but didn’t know what.
Police say Taylor claims while driving, she closed her eyes for a second. She then heard a loud bang and that’s when she noticed her windshield was smashed. She also told police she received a cell phone call at about the time of the accident. Taylor called the police.
Taylor was taken into custody, police are recommending charges of homicide by negligent use of a motor vehicle. We spoke with an avid cyclist who chose to remain anonymous. He said it’s a gamble anytime you ride at night.
Southport Rigging Bike Shop Owner Ralph Ruffolo said, “Even if you’re wearing reflective gear and you have front and back lights, you have to be a little cautious.”
While the details of the crash are under investigation, Ruffolo says an important lesson could be learned by this tragic death.
Police are not releasing the name of the man who was killed. There’s no indication if he was wearing a helmet or if he had his bicycle lights turned on. Alcohol was not a factor in this incident.   Copyright © 2011

Before we look at night riding more closely, let’s look at what the law requires and and then discuss best practices for safety. To legally ride a bicycle at night in Wisconsin, a bike must have a front light and rear reflector.

Bicycling at Night
347.489  Lamps and other equipment on bicycles, motor bicycles, and electric personal assistive mobility devices.

347.489(1)(1) No person may operate a bicycle, motor bicycle, or electric personal assistive mobility device upon a highway, sidewalk, bicycle lane, or bicycle way during hours of darkness unless the bicycle, motor bicycle, or electric personal assistive mobility device is equipped with or, with respect to a bicycle or motor bicycle, the operator is wearing, a lamp emitting a white light visible from a distance of at least 500 feet to the front of the bicycle, motor bicycle, or electric personal assistive mobility device. A bicycle, motor bicycle, or electric personal assistive mobility device shall also be equipped with a red reflector that has a diameter of at least 2 inches of surface area or, with respect to an electric personal assistive mobility device, that is a strip of reflective tape that has at least 2 square inches of surface area, on the rear so mounted and maintained as to be visible from all distances from 50 to 500 feet to the rear when directly in front of lawful upper beams of headlamps on a motor vehicle. A lamp emitting a red or flashing amber light visible from a distance of 500 feet to the rear may be used in addition to but not in lieu of the red reflector.

To improve your visibility and reduce the risk of not being seen, bicyclists really should ride with a bright front light as well as a bright rear light and rear reflector.  There are many such lights, but Madison-based Planet Bike has a wide variety of inexpensive and very bright lights that have become the defacto industry standard. Many manufacturers even make excellent front and rear light combination packages that can be purchased from any local bike store for as little as $25.  That is a small investment to comply with the law and reduce your risk of being hit at night.

In a previous post I argued that riding a bicycle is safe based on statistics. So is it dangerous to ride night?  According to a crash typing study done by the Wisconsin Dept. of Transportation, more than 83% of crashes occurred during daylight hours, and of the 12.3% of  crashes occurring at night, only one out of ten occurred without some sort of light present.  So this is a very rare crash, but probably because so few people ride at night where there are no street lights.

Despite the statistics in the crash study, the numbers are too small to generalize from and we just don’t know enough about exposure hours and frequency to definitively answer that question.  Certainly most crashes do not occur at night, but the majority people do not ride at night, so that fact has little value in assessing the relative risk of riding in the dark.  All we are left with is common sense based on other relative risk factors.

People who ride bicycles in an urban environment are probably at the lowest risk of being involved in a fatal crash because the speed differential between motor vehicles and bicycles is small.  People who ride on higher speed roads are probably at the highest risk of being involved in a fatal crash.  Common sense says that you greatly increase your risk if you also ride on a road with no shoulder or other bicycle accommodation at night when you are less visible and there are more intoxicated people driving home from the taverns.

So bottom line is that yes, it is certainly more risky to ride at night, on narrow roads with higher speeds.  Because I ride at night often, I have invested in pretty expensive front and rear lighting systems that rival the brightness of motor cycle lights. If you search this blog, you can read about some of the systems I use. On the rare occasions when I have to ride at night in rural or suburban areas, I try to choose routes with wide shoulders, even if they take me a bit out of my way.

As the report above mentions, we don’t yet know if the victim had lights and a reflector. The video does mention that the popular bicycle route doesn’t have shoulders, a bike lane or a parallel side path, which make it a riskier place to ride at night. A complete street there might have saved a life, but it sounds like the driver was talking on the phone with her eyes closed, so who knows.

While we wait for the complete police report, our thoughts and prayers should be with the victim, his family and friends.  This and other fatal crashes should serve as a sobering reminder what a tremendous right and responsibility it is to drive a motor vehicle. We can all do our part to keep the roads safer by keeping our complete attention on our driving when we are behind the wheel.


About daveschlabowske

Cyclechic advocate from Milwaukee
This entry was posted in Lights, safety and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Another Fatal Crash: Is it safe to ride a bike at night?

  1. jennifer picciolo says:

    and now this too Dave:

    I’m so sick and saddened by these tragedies. Clearly we need more PSAs, more awareness. Is there enough cycling information in Driver’s Ed classes? Based on people’s comments in the news, there is still so much ignorance about cyclists’ rights. Whenever I ride with the boys on the road, someone yells at us to get on the sidewalks. I’ve just had it with the ignorance and the texting and the cellphones…

    • daveschlabowske says:

      You are correct Jennifer, early reports make it sound like this is another case of distracted driving. Given that about 50% of people in Wisconsin ride bicycles, what if everyone who rides a bicycle vowed to drive the speed limit or slower, pay complete attention when driving a motor vehicle, yield to pedestrians attempting to cross the street at crosswalks, AND stopped at red lights and stop signs when riding a bicycle? I know plenty of cyclists who speed, text while driving, eat oatmeal while driving to races, etc. Second, what if we also all became vocal advocates that those around us did the same? Next time you are a passenger in a car, try telling the driver to slow down to the speed limit, stop talking on the cell phone and stop when a pedestrian is standing at a corner. We may not get many rides if we do, but the roads might be safer for everyone. Let’s be the change we want to see and redefine critical mass.

  2. Richard says:

    Kenosha, not near Racine. This incident happened a mile or two north of the Illinois state line, a mile or two east of I-94, in the town of Pleasant Prairie, in Kenosha County. Somewhere else it was written, the young man killed was riding home after work from the Bristol Renaissance Fair.

    • daveschlabowske says:

      Richard, thank you very much for the correction. I wrote that early in the morning and I was thinking about Mt. Pleasant, not Pleasant Prairie. My sincere apologies for the significant inaccuracy.

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