Posts about Bike Safety
Washington DC has made great strides over the past decade towards creating a vibrant bicycle culture. How well does this extend to families so far? How can bicycling be more appealing to families?
Recent research has found that children who bike or walk to school perform better. A Danish study found that exercise, including from biking or walking to school, helped kids concentrate better, while chauffured children had a poorer grasp of geography, another study found.
In spite of the benefits, there are a number of reasons why families may not choose to or be able to bike. The reason I most often hear from parents is safety (even when biking is convenient). I feel the same way. Too often, I have found myself biking with my children, following all road and safety rules, only to be overrun by a driver who sees my small children as obstacles, not a family.
Mayor Gray's sustainability plan sets goals for "safe, secure infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians" with a target to "increase biking and walking to 25% of all commuter trips."
Part of this needs to be a concerted effort to focus on making it easier for children and families to commute to school and get around in general, by bike.
The city has programs aimed at stimulating families to bike. For families with school age children, the District Department of Transportation's (DDOT) offers the Safe Routes to school program, run by Jennifer Hefferan. She works with schools to support various types of active transportation models, including biking.
At my own children's school, Jennifer has designed more efficient drop-off and pick up processes, helped us to get appropriate signage, and worked with us to develop a comprehensive longer-term safe routes plan for our school. On biking, DC's Safe Routes program coordinated with the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) to triple the number of bike racks for the school, as well as advise and support us on efforts like Bike to School Day and Fuel Free Fridays.
There are also advocacy organizations like WABA, who offer safety and skills education opportunities, including Bike Rodeos for children. KidicalMassDC promotes "safe, fun family biking in the Greater Washington area" by holding regular mass family rides and teaming up with DDOT, WABA and bicycle shops like BicycleSpace and the Daily Rider to host the ABC's of Family Biking.
Personally, I find programs like ABCs of Family Biking particularly compelling, because they bring together a comprehensive community of stakeholders invested in promoting family biking. There are opportunities to learn from each other, practice skills, and discover gear that makes sense for individual needs and lifestyles.
What seems to be lacking, however, is education (and skill-building) directed at drivers. Those who bike spend time learning how to co-exist with drivers, but until drivers learn to co-exist with cyclists, families will continue to face safety-related obstacles when considering whether or not to bike.
What obstacles do you see to getting your family or other families to bike?
On Tuesday morning, the Environmental Matters Committee of the Maryland House of Delegates will hold a hearing on House Bill 339, to require that every person operating a bicycle in Maryland wear a helmet. This bill is bad policy.
Mandatory helmet laws cause fewer people to bicycle, and when fewer people bicycle, cycling becomes less safe. So much less safe, in fact, that decreased ridership increases the individual cyclist's risk of injury more than wearing a helmet decreases risk of injury.
This does not mean that bicyclists should not wear helmets. We encourage bicyclists to wear helmets. However, there are several reasons why people who are deeply committed to bicyclist safety oppose mandatory helmet laws.
Mandatory helmet laws decrease ridership.
Numerous studies of places that have enacted helmet laws have shown this to be true. The most commonly-cited study
(One can debate whether Maryland can expect a decrease of this magnitude. There is no local data available, so this analysis uses the average of 37.5%. But even if the decrease is only 20%, the lowest Robinson observed, even half of that, the result is the same.)
Lower ridership makes bicycling less safe.
We are defining "safety" as the likelihood of a bike-auto crash. By saying that decreased ridership makes bicycling less safe, we mean that a decreased rate of bicycling within a population is correlated with increased crash rates, and vice versa.
The leading article on this topic
Across the independent sets of data from these many jurisdictions, Jacobsen finds a consistent, inverse, curvilinear relationship between bicycling and injury rates, determining that "the total number of pedestrians or bicyclists struck by motorists varies with the 0.4 power of the amount of walking or bicycling respectively." Expressed simply, more people biking leads to fewer per capita crashes while fewer people biking leads to more per capita crashes.
Jacobsen also derives a formula for how this affects the individual cyclist: "Taking into account the amount of walking and bicycling, the probability that a motorist will strike an individual person walking or bicycling declines with roughly -0.6 power of the number of persons walking or bicycling." In other words, as more people bicycle, the per capita risk to each bicyclist of a crash decreases; if fewer people bicycle, the per capita risk to each bicyclist increases.
Helmets do not make cyclists as much safer as commonly thought.
For the individual, of course, the story is different. Wearing a helmet is likely safer than not wearing one. This is true for bicyclists; it is also true for people who are skydiving, rock climbing, sitting under an oak tree, or taking a bath. Individually, we make our decisions based on our own risk tolerances and values, and many of us choose to wear helmets and encourage our loved ones to do so.
But at the broader level, where we ought to analyze legislation and public policy, how much safer will a helmet make a person in a bike crash that leads to a head impact? This is a topic of debate and uncertainty, but as research methods improve we move further from some of the magical thinking that took hold due to early estimates
Generally, those estimates came from retrospective studies that looked at people with head injuries in emergency rooms and compared the numbers who lived and died, and whether they were wearing helmets when they were hit. When more recent studies have attempted to compile these data into meta-analyses with more informative sample sizes, their results do not approach the long-accepted 85% level. Some show a smaller effect; others, none at all. In fact, in population-level studies focusing on hospitalization rather than emergency room visits, helmets have no discernible, statistically significant effect on hospitalization rates. (Jacobsen 2012)
Recent studies that have focused on overall health, rather than simply crash mortality rates, have shown that the individual and public health benefits grossly outweigh the costs, by a factor of 20:1. (De Jong 2012)
The mandatory helmet law in Maryland will increase danger for Maryland cyclists.
Assuming that the helmet law will decrease cycling by the 37.5% average in Maryland, the total Maryland cycling population, post helmet law, would shrink to only 62.5% of the current cycling population. Assuming also that Jacobsen's safety-in-numbers effect holds true in Maryland
For the individual, these assumptions mean that the likelihood of injury from a crash with a motor vehicle would increase by roughly 33% (0.625-0.6=1.326)
Maryland does not keep much data on bicycling, but one piece of data that we do have is that in 2010, there were 734 reported bicycle crashes in Maryland. Looking only at this data
However, this expectation is wrong. Due to the decreasing "safety in numbers," we would instead expect to see 537 crashes, or 78 additional crashes directly attributable to the mandatory helmet law. So even though the total number of crashes might decrease, that is not because the law has made cyclists safer; it is because substantially fewer people are riding bikes, and those that still ride are measurably less safe, because of the law.
Discouraging cycling runs counter to other Maryland priorities.
The state of Maryland has launched, or is poised to launch, two programs dedicated to encouraging cycling. The mandatory helmet law would undermine the success and safety of both.
First, knowing the overall benefits of biking to public health and well-being, transportation, economic development, and other public priorities, the state of Maryland initiated a campaign to get more people riding bikes. Maryland's Department of Transportation introduces the campaign on their website with:
Governor O'Malley's Cycle Maryland initiative is an effort to encourage more Marylanders to get out and ride, and to make bicycling a true transportation alternative. Cycling is a great way to connect to your community, support a cleaner environment, encourage a healthier lifestyle, reduce household transportation costs and enjoy Maryland's magnificent landscape.
With the mandatory helmet law reducing ridership, Maryland will be left with more people to figure out how to move, and will have to treat more people for health problems associated with sedentary lifestyles.
Second, Maryland has contributed funds to expand the popular and successful Capital Bikeshare program to Montgomery County. Due to the nature of bikesharing, users are less likely to wear helmets, more likely to be casual rather than experienced users, and more likely to be operating in urban environments with motor vehicles. So perhaps the legislators proposing this mandatory helmet bill mean to ensure the safety of those riders, before bikesharing arrives in the state?
However, again, consider the data: Capital Bikeshare users have logged over 3.4 million trips, with an approximately 38% lower helmet usage rate than the general population. (Kraemer 2012) There have been zero fatalities and only one head injury. That is roughly one crash for every 88,000 miles ridden! Yet by driving potential cyclists away, a mandatory helmet policy would undermine the likelihood of success of the program in Montgomery County, Baltimore, and other areas statewide.
That safety record speaks for itself and shows that biking is not an inherently dangerous activity. Mandatory bicycle helmet laws falsely portray it as such, and in doing so create a false sense of danger that limits ridership and undermines the many positive impacts of mass cycling for Maryland.
"Contributory negligence" makes the law extra harmful.
And finally, some believe that this law is acceptable and benevolent and will not have these impacts because there is no fine for violation. But this law has other, even more dire consequences for violators.
Maryland, like the District and Virginia, is a "contributory negligence" jurisdiction. That means if the victim of a crash contributed in any way to her own injury, she can claim no civil recovery for her damages. In Maryland, violation of a law is negligence per se.
Thus, it is possible that a cyclist who rides the bus to work on a rainy morning but chooses to take a bikeshare bike home when the weather clears, and suffers permanent brain injury when a drunk driver veers into a bike lane and strikes her, could be denied any civil recovery as a result of not wearing a helmet.
Is this the transportation future we want in Maryland? Is this the sort of public policy we hope to encourage?
In Maryland, we can anticipate a mandatory helmet law to reduce bicycle ridership by 37.5% (along with its accompanying public health, environmental, and economic benefits), per capita crashes to increase by 17%, and the per capita risk of a crash to increase by 33% for every person riding a bike in the state of Maryland, regardless of whether he or she wears a helmet.
In a broader sense, these laws are a form of victim blaming
WABA opposes a mandatory helmet law in Maryland because it is bad policy based on accepted, tested, and peer-reviewed data
Fundamentally, we do believe that the legislators proposing this mandatory helmet law hope to do what is best for bicyclist safety, but they have significantly erred in determining what will, in fact, be best. They have the power to impose new risks on each of us who rides a bike, even when we wear helmets. We hope they will consider this information seriously and decide that a mandatory helmet law is a bad policy for the state of Maryland.
De Jong, Piet. 2012. The Health Impact of Mandatory Bicycle Helmet Laws. Risk Analysis. 5 (32): 782-790.
Jacobsen, Peter L. 2003. Safety in Numbers: More Walkers and Bicyclists, Safer Walking and Bicycling. Injury Prevention 9 (3): 205-209.
Jacobsen, Peter L. and Harry Rutter. "Cycling Safety" City Cycling. Ed. John Pucher, Ed. Ralph Buehler. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012. 141-156.
Kraemer, John D., Jason S. Roffenbender, and Laura Anderko. 2012. Helmet Wearing Among Users of a Public Bicycle-Sharing Program in the District of Columbia and Comparable Riders on Personal Bicycles. American Journal of Public Health 102 (8): e23-e25.
Robinson, Dorothy L. 1996. No Clear Evidence from Countries that Have Enforced the Wearing of Helmets. British Medical Journal 332 (7543): 722-725.
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Perenially dark lights on the Metropolitan Branch Trail have frustrated cyclists for quite some time, but DDOT says they will do better in the future, and some fixes are coming in the near term.
After I wrote about lighting problems on the Metropolitan Branch Trail, DDOT spokesman John Lisle shared some plans to upgrade and maintain lighting along the trail.
Obviously they are not performing as well as we'd like and we are working with the contractor to get them all up and running again. Heather [Deutsch, in the bicycle planning group], has led this charge over the past year and the lighting team is working on it as well.
They inventoried the lights and here's a summary of what they found:Lisle also promised an update once most of the lights have been fixed.
We have contacted the vendor and they are preparing to ship the batteries by [December 11th] and will make preparations to have the two missing fixtures sent at a later time. They also will replace the broken electronic controller.
- 22 lights were out, 2 of which were missing the entire fixture
- 4 lights with blown fuses were repaired on the spot
- 36 batteries failed the test
- 1 electronic controller failed test
- 32 fixtures were loose at the arm mount and the contractor was able to tighten all of the fixtures.
In addition we are providing temporary lights for the New York Avenue Bridge Project contractor to install under that bridge to light the trail.
One challenge that has impeded fixing lights is that no group was formally responsible for this. Deutsch and the other bicycle planners, part of DDOT's Policy, Planning, and Sustainability Administration, are responsible for planning and designing new bicycle facilities, but not ongoing maintenance.
There's a group that handles streetlights, and that's part of the Traffic Operations Administration. It would be logical for them to maintain trail lights as well. Soumya Dey, acting head of TOA, said that DDOT has been operating under an emergency temporary contract for streetlights while they work out a permanent contract. The current contract doesn't encompass trail lighting, but Dey said that the new one would.
If DDOT can fix some of the lighting now, including getting some under the dark New York Avenue bridge during construction, and then make trail lighting part of some division's long-term maintenance responsibilities, we can hope trail users need not suffer for long.
The Metropolitan Branch Trail is a terrific bike facility, but without better lighting, it's too attractive for crime. Sadly, it takes repeated emergencies like robberies to get our government to pay attention.
On Tuesday night at 9 pm, I rode the off-street part of the trail from Franklin Street NE, south to M Street NE, and counted 19 overhead lights (as well as 5 lights on the ramp to street level) that were burned out, missing, or flashing like a strobe.
I stopped a police officer on the trail to ask if the police would have any more success advocating for working lighting on the trail than regular citizens would. Sadly, the officer said I should just email the city or call 311, as he had no more pull on this issue than I did.
Just over an hour later, MPD reported a robbery by 8-9 masked youth, armed with a gun, on the "1400 block" of the trail.
One would assume that's between where O and P Streets would intersect the trail, based on address ranges elsewhere. That is the location of the New York Avenue bridge over the trail, which has been bathed in utter darkness since the trail opened.
There have been constant problems with the overhead lights. The light just south of the Franklin Street overpass has been flashing like a strobe since October 2011 (over a year), and nothing has been done about it. DDOT employee Heather Deutch wrote on the MBT's Facebook page:
These are solar/LED lights. There is a 5 year warranty, with most components expected to last 10 years (i.e. batteries and lamps). This was a pilot project for us and the company is out of Florida. We have been having problems with the lights and with repairs being performed quickly. That being said, all the lights were repaired and working as of January 2012. There are, again, more lights out and we have submitted this information to the company. If you would like to contact them directly, the company is Sol www.solarlighting.com.DDOT's bicycle program has few resources, but it's still unacceptable that they aren't able to keep the lights working. If there's a warranty, there should be an employee who deals with contracts who can get the necessary work done.
In addition, it's been clear that the stretch of the trail under the New York Avenue overpass would be a particularly dark place since that segment of the trail opened in May, 2010. The excuse for not placing lighting under the bridge was that it would soon be under construction (construction began in early 2011). That construction has been ongoing for nearly 2 years, and is not expected to be complete until September 2013.
There's simply no rationale for not putting temporary lighting under the bridge. In addition to the all-too-real threat of crime, there's the current threat of severe injury because construction equipment takes up some of the space. David Poms noted on Twitter that he almost crashed into the construction material in the darkness.
The city needs to light the underpass now and until construction is complete with a long-term temporary solution, and then with a high-quality permanent solution after that point. Riders need to be able to see construction material or gangs of criminals waiting for them in the darkness.
Earlier this month, Dan introduced us to one of the street design tools that planners use to ensure safe mixing of bikes and streetcars, the bike sneak. That's one of a whole toolbox full of strategies.
Seattle's South Lake Union streetcar line runs along Westlake Avenue, which cuts diagonally across the grid. Because the street is a diagonal, almost every intersection is at an odd angle, meaning cyclists crossing Westlake could easily get their wheels caught in the tracks.
One solution that Seattle has applied is to use sharrows painted to encourage cyclists to cross at the safest angle. I'm not sure if this technique has an official name, but I like to call it the "sharrow serpentine."
Portland employs a similar technique where one of its bike lanes crosses streetcar tracks:
Portland also does some interesting things with streetcar stops. Lovejoy Street has a bike lane parallel to streetcar tracks, immediately to the tracks' right. With the bike lane between the tracks and the curb, something had to be done at stations. So they routed the bike lane onto the sidewalk, behind the streetcar stop.
Portland's solution for Lovejoy Street isn't perfect, because despite pavement markings the passengers waiting for the streetcar occasionally stand in the bikeway. But it certainly beats the alternative of forcing cyclists to merge into the streetcar lane to go through stations.
Seattle will take this idea one step further on its soon-to-be-built First Hill streetcar, which will share Broadway with a cycle track located behind the streetcar stops.
Closer to home, Arlington is designing its Columbia Pike streetcar with new bikeways on adjacent parallel streets. Instead of finding ways to mix bikes and streetcars safely, they'll put the bikeways one block over.
Arlington's parallel bikeways will be "bike boulevards," which are common on the west coast but will be the first local example in the Washington region. Bike boulevards are streets that cars and bikes share, but on which car traffic is calmed in order to optimize the street for bikes.
Portland's MLK bike boulevard, which allows bikes to go straight but forces cars to turn. Photo by BikePortland.org on Flickr.
Do you know of other solutions for mixing bikes and streetcars? Surely there must be some interesting examples from Europe. Please share your photos and ideas in the comments.
As I walked home from work last night, I saw a crowd gathered at the corner of 17th and L Streets, NW. On closer inspection, a woman was lying in the road. A bicyclist had been hit. Have you thought about what you would do in such a situation?
A few people were hunched over, talking to her, trying to keep her still and calm. The rest of the crowd watched, concerned but unsure of what to do. Since I'd learned about the bystander effect, which renders people immobile rather than helpful in a crowd, I'd mentally rehearsed how to deal with a crash.
I sized up the situation to see if I was needed. A man kneeling next to the victim was on the phone, so 911 had been called; she was talking and I didn't see any blood, so things probably weren't dire (though only trained medical personnel can decide for sure as some injuries aren't immediately visible).
It looked like the scene was under control, but the crowd was looking inward, away from traffic, so I jumped in to direct drivers and cyclists around the site. I also tried to flag down the police, but the 3 patrol cars that passed by ignored our waving and yelling.
The injured cyclist had been riding as far to the right as possible when she was struck. Ron Knox confirmed that she was so far to the right that she was lying with one of her legs in the storm drain.
While it's always safer to take the whole lane, which is a bicyclist's right, I can't say I blame her. The traffic on L was heavy and chaotic, with bicyclists and cars both weaving through or between lanes. The cycle track isn't complete on that block, and the incomplete portion still looks more like a hazard than a feature.
Two other people joined me to form a phalanx against traffic. I asked one of them how long they'd been waiting for an ambulance. About 6 minutes, he said, and it was at least another 2 until an FEMS SUV pulled up and an EMT took over.
With the FEMS vehicle blocking the right lane and an ambulance within earshot, my work was finished and I started home. I tweeted the incident with the #bikedc hashtag, which alerted advocates and traffic watchers in the press that something had happened, and wondered what lessons to take from the mess.
Tips to avoid a crash, or react to one once it happens
If you're bicycling, take the lane. If you're riding with traffic on downtown streets, ride a little bit left of the center of the lane to ensure drivers have to pass you like they would another vehicle. They might get upset, but you're safer there than in the gutter.
Drivers need to give bicyclists clearance when they don't take the lane. DC requires drivers to pass with at least 3 feet, to cut down on the odds of a side-swipe. Given how far over the crashed bicyclist was riding, it seems likely she wasn't afforded those 3 feet.
For anyone who might be a bystander, rehearse what to do in a crash. Just being mentally prepared for the situation can help keep you calm and in control. There's no need to command a situation if people are already acting, but just standing by to help as needed can be enough.
Lastly, tweet it, if you can, ideally with a picture. Mention @struckdc, a Twitter account that tracks crashes, and #bikedc if it's bicycle-related. Spreading the word lets other travelers know to avoid the area and lets advocates know to follow up. It's embarrassing to lie injured on the road with strangers standing around and tweeting, but crashes shouldn't happen to begin with. Advocates keep the narrative of those struck and injured alive, and people need to know when the street design and traffic patterns make them too dangerous.
I'd also like to know more about why the police didn't stop or respond to the crash. When the 911 call goes out for an ambulance, police ought to respond to the scene as well to take witness accounts, interview the driver, and take over the crowd while waiting for medical personnel. Police also typically stop when bystanders try to wave them down, so hopefully these particular cars were responding to another, even more urgent call, or had another reason not to stop.
Cyclists and advocates, motivated by crashes like this, have pushed for safer bike infrastructure like the L Street cycletrack. It, and its twin on M Street, can't come online soon enough.
Speaking of another part of the world even more prone to coastal flooding, someone recently shared a link to this video about why a top-notch network of bike paths came to the Netherlands. I often hear the question, why do other parts of the world do bicycling so much better than we do?
The video argues that the country was on the path of wider and wider roads and more driving following World War II, but after the pedestrian death toll started to mount, especially among children, residents demanded another transportation approach.
Why didn't the same happen here? The US is much larger, and during the interstate highway building boom, most of the roads were going in areas with few or no pedestrians. That would have meant a very different political dynamic around a national policy of road-building.
However, even in the cities there wasn't this push for bicycle infrastructure until fairly recently. Why not? Perhaps that is because the politically powerful classes at the time were moving to suburbs and not caring about the cities? What do you think?
Americans might not have made a fuss about the hazards of poor road design or reckless driving 50 years ago, but some are today. Cyclists rallied on Pennsylvania Avenue Friday to raise awareness of the dangers of illegal U-turns on Pennsylvania Avenue. Local bike shop BicycleSpace organized the event, and officers from the Metropolitan Police Department attended to speak with cyclists about how they can enforce the law.
- Metro maps out loop line between DC and Arlington
- It's fine to not build parking at Tysons Metro stations
- Alexandria board rejects King Street bike lanes
- Ask Congress to give DC self-rule on building heights
- DC sports spaces give short shrift to girls
- Sexist Metro ad asks "Can't we just talk about shoes?"
- Downtown & Georgia Avenue Walmarts open for business