So far this year, nine people riding bicycles have died as a result of a crash with a motor vehicle. According to the Journal Sentinel’s review of the police crash reports, motorists were at fault in five of the crashes and bicyclists were at fault in four. Those numbers are so small that we can’t draw too many conclusions from them by themselves, but they align reasonably well with the historic trends in bicycle crashes in Wisconsin. In a review of all bicycle crashes with motor vehicles from 1999-2004 done by the Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicles, motorists were at fault 57% of the time and bicyclists 43%.
Tom Held reported last week Friday in his “Off the Couch” blog that five of the people who were killed while riding bicycles were hit from behind by an overtaking motor vehicle. Those types of crashes are very rare, often result in the death of the person riding the bicycle and are almost impossible to avoid. Tom noted that in the remaining four fatal crashes, the people on the bicycles were at fault for riding into the path of the motor vehicles.
My point in bringing this up is not to point fingers, but to point out that we as a community have the power to dramatically improve our own safety. We don’t have to wait for people driving motor vehicles to respect us, stop speeding, give us three feet when passing, or anything else. We don’t have to wait at all. All we have to do to reduce the number of people killed while riding bicycles by almost 50% is to obey the laws and learn how to avoid the most likely crashes.
I touched on this idea in a recent post titled “We can be the change we want to see.” In that post I suggested that since most people who ride bicycles also drive cars, before we blame “motorists,” we can start with our own behavior behind the wheel and always drive the speed limit, stop for pedestrians and rather than talking on mobile phones, eating oatmeal or combing our hair, we should give our full attention to the task of driving. Since 49% of Wisconsin residents 16 and older ride bicycles, our community could have a huge positive impact on traffic safety if we all drive our cars like we expect others to do when we are riding bicycles or walking.
After discussing this year’s fatal bicycle crashes with Tom, it became clear that the cycling community can do even more to make Wisconsin the safest place to ride a bicycle in the country. Certainly people are human and they make mistakes behind the wheel. Unintentional violations of the law can be considered accidents, but most crashes are not accidents. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration put it this way:
- “Changing the way we think about events, and the words we use to describe them, affects the way we behave. Motor vehicle crashes and injuries are predictable, preventable events. Continued use of the word “accident” promotes the concept that these events are outside of human influence or control. In fact, they are predictable results of specific actions.”
While we cannot eliminate human error, we can dramatically reduce the number of people killed while riding bicycles if we all do a better job of obeying the laws and learn where crashes are likely to happen. Let’s start with the 5 basics of bicycle safety:
- Ride your bicycle in the same direction as traffic
- Stop at red lights and stop signs
- Ride in a predictable manner
- Stay 3 feet from parked cars to avoid the door zone
- Look both ways before riding out into traffic
As far as learning to recognize where crashes are likely to happen, you don’t have to read the entire 84 page detailed crash typing study done by WisDOT, but the Major Findings section summarizes results that are significant and worth noting.
“…there were far more urban crashes than rural crashes (94% compared 6%), the majority of crashes occurred at intersections (66% compared to 34%), there was a high frequency of sidewalk/crosswalk-type crashes (28% of all crashes), and there were lower crash rates on wider roadways for both local roads and state highways. While urban streets had a much higher crash rate, rural highways had a much higher rate of fatalities (fatal crashes as a percent of all bike – vehicle crashes). Four of the top five crash types (and 7 of the top 10) indicated that the motorist made the critical error that contributed to the crash.”
Our takeaway from that is crashes are most likely to happen at intersections. People on bikes should beware of the “left cross” and the “right hook.” When approaching an intersection, bicyclists should move closer to the center of their lane to indicate their intention to continue straight to the drivers in both oncoming vehicles and overtaking vehicles. By moving away from the curb and “taking the lane” the driver behind the bicycle knows not to try to hurry past and turn right. Approaching motorists who want to turn left will also know they have to wait before turning.
The Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin will continue to work for tougher enforcement of laws that protect people on bicycles. In fact, we are drafting legislation now, that if passed, will improve the protections of the most vulnerable users of the road. So while we cannot ignore the fact that five of the nine people who died in bicycle crashes were killed through no fault of their own, neither can we ignore that four people might have avoided a crash if they had been following the rules of the road. And so my fellow bicyclists, as a beginning, let us ask not what motorists can do to improve our safety – ask instead what we can do for ourselves.