Can't We All Just Roll Along?

There is a way bike riders and car drivers can more safely coexist, and help the environment.

Bay Area statistics bear this out. Randall Smith, a recreational cyclist and owner of Peak Data Solutions, a Bay Area statistical analysis consulting firm, studied California Highway Patrol accident data from 1996 to 2007. After two Peninsula cyclists were killed earlier this year by a police officer who'd reportedly fallen asleep at the wheel, Smith read a Chronicle story that used the incident as a hook for a story suggesting that cyclists are usually at fault in road accidents: The story was headlined "Bicyclists blamed twice as often as drivers."

Smith dug a little further into the data and found that the Chronicle story included incidents where no driver was involved. He also found that cops were still about one and a half times as likely to blame cyclists as motorists for serious collisions.

Bob Mionske, a personal injury lawyer specializing in bike accidents nationwide, says this is consistent with his experience. "When someone mows down a cyclist, you don't get a story saying [drivers] need to obey the law," he says. "They say, 'There go those damned cyclists.'"

During the late 1990s, four such fatal crashes happened in Marin County in rapid succession. District Attorney Paula Kamena decided to take this on as a public safety problem. In 2000 she got area police departments, the sheriff's department, the Highway Patrol, bike coalitions, politicians, and community leaders to put together a bike safety program. "We just sat down and met every couple weeks," the now-retired Kamena says. "That's how it sort of just grew."

Cops and cyclists hung out at coffee shops to discuss safety. The CHP spent money to patrol especially dangerous highways. They all got together to make "Share the Road" posters and signs, which are now everywhere in Marin. And law enforcement got serious about citing motorists, and cyclists who broke traffic laws. Eight years after Kamena's epiphany, the results seem to show up in CHP data.

Smith's analysis of the CHP crash data seems to bear out Kamena's approach. Of the serious collisions in Marin County in which either a motorist or cyclist was blamed by an officer, cyclists were considered at fault 42 percent of the time. In the other eight Bay Area counties, bicyclists were considered to be at fault in 61 percent of serious collisions. In San Francisco, 53 percent of collisions were deemed to be cyclists' fault.

Nine months ago, the San Francisco Police Department made a training video to teach academy cadets and veterans about the rules of the road as they pertain to bikes. (A call to the academy was not returned by press time.) Observations of the city's bike-patrol cops, who often ride on sidewalks and against traffic without observing traffic regulations, suggest that not everyone got the memo. A viral video showing city cops ticketing cyclists while motorists in the background freely violated traffic laws added to the impression that police efforts to improve safety on the streets have been awkward at best.

But I'm encouraged by the effort. Educating police, motorists, and cyclists about traffic safety might be an important part of the route toward U.S. economic security, environmental sustainability, and a possible end to oil wars.

"What I think is interesting is the threshold after which it becomes common knowledge that bicycling is safe, responsible, and comfortable transportation," says SPUR's transportation policy director, Dave Snyder. "There will be a point when enough people ride bikes that the idea that we're a bunch of freaks, and that we're better off without bicycles because it's dangerous, will be forgotten."

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