Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Bike Safety


Holiday reader: The war on bikes

"Is it okay to kill cyclists?" That's the question an op-ed in the New York Times asks. It's not, but if a spate of other op-eds are any indication, it's sure okay to hate them and the facilities they ask for in a quest for safety.

Photo by Daquella manera on Flickr.

As Daniel Duane explains in the Times, most crashes involving a cyclist never lead to any charges or other consequences, no matter how egregious the circumstances:

But studies performed in Arizona, Minnesota and Hawaii suggest that drivers are at fault in more than half of cycling fatalities. And there is something undeniably screwy about a justice system that makes it de facto legal to kill people, even when it is clearly your fault, as long you're driving a car and the victim is on a bike and you're not obviously drunk and don't flee the scene.
When two cars crash, everybody agrees that one of the two drivers may well be to blame; cops consider it their job to gather evidence toward that determination. But when a car hits a bike, it's like there's a collective cultural impulse to say, "Oh, well, accidents happen." If your 13-year-old daughter bikes to school tomorrow inside a freshly painted bike lane, and a driver runs a stop sign and kills her and then says to the cop, "Gee, I so totally did not mean to do that," that will most likely be good enough.
The same applies to pedestrians, and in 2010 we had an article with a title quite similar to Duane's: "You're free to mow down pedestrians in Prince William" County. On the other hand, TheWashCycle actually manages to think of one example (but just one) where a driver, in Montgomery County, did get prosecuted and convicted.

To a lot of people, though, the problem in our society isn't that those who hit and kill cyclists face no consequences; the problem is that those damn cyclists are in the way of driving faster. Like on King Street in Alexandria, where a potential bike lane has driven GMU law professor Frank Buckly to unload on cyclists and the "preening activists" who want to make the road safe to ride on in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. The article is behind the WSJ paywall, but WashCycle has the choice quotes along with good rebuttals.

And Christopher Caldwell writes in the Weekly Standard that "Bicyclists are making unreasonable claims to the roadand winning." Caldwell admits that "Bicyclists sometimes do require the middle of the roadway," and "Almost 700 cyclists died on the road in the United States in 2011," not to mention "the environmental, aesthetic, and health benefits of cycling."

Except, Caldwell argues, since our transportation system is over capacity, that means we can't afford to give up a single square foot of asphalt to cyclists or let them slow down drivers. Never mind that you can move more people in less space when some drive and some bike, as opposed to all driving; a bike lane would "place drivers in a position of second-class citizenship on roads that were purpose-built for them."

Caldwell must not know that roads were originally paved to accommodate bicycling, not driving. People using any mode of travel very naturally feel irritation toward those on other modes if they get in the way. That psychological inevitability leads to this constant drumbeat of op-eds bemoaning cycle advocacy.

But, as many have said many times before, if there is a war on cars, why are cyclists the casualties?

Update: "M.S." at The Economist compares the American system ("it's probably the cyclist's fault" to that in the Netherlands:

[I]n the Netherlands, if a motor vehicle hits a cyclist, the accident is always assumed to have been the driver's fault, not the cyclist's. ... The driver of the motor vehicle is liable for the accident, unless he can prove he was overpowered by circumstances beyond his control ...

[C]yclist fatalities in America were estimated at somewhere in the range of 58 to 109 deaths per 1 billion kilometres cycled in the early 2000s. ... In the Netherlands, ... there were 12 deaths per billion kilometres cycled in 2010, down by a third since 2000. So I guess it depends on how much one values human life, as against the inconvenience of having to look in the rearview mirror more often.


I will continue to ride, bent frame and all

I started biking in DC to become a moving, breathing part of the city. But Monday morning, while in the center bike lane on Pennsylvania Avenue between 7th and 9th streets, a driver made an illegal U-turn straight into my bike.

A driver makes an illegal U-turn on Penn. Photo by jwetz on Twitter.

I feel compelled to say I was obeying all laws and going the speed limit when I was hit. I catapulted into the side of her car, was jostled off my bike and caught myself with one foot on the ground, which she then ran over with her back tire.

She pulled over to the shoulder and leaned out her window, "Oh my God! I did not SEE you!" At this point, I yelled across all three lanes of traffic, "I WAS IN A BIKE LANE!" I walked my bike up to the crosswalk and onto the sidewalk to meet her on the shoulder of the road. She burst out of the car, apologizing profusely. A police officer who had witnessed the scene from nearby came over.

First, he asked if I was okay. I told him that I thought so, but wasn't quite sure. He said he could call an EMT if I thought I needed one. I said I wasn't sure, so he didn't.

He asked us what happened at which point the woman frantically and apologetically explained she was looking for an address and did not see me when she tried to cross to the other side of the street between intersections. I reminded her again that I was, in fact, in a bike lane. The officer gently informed her that making a U-turn in the middle of the street was illegal.

Why I started bicycling

I picked up a bike to heal heartbreak. I was living in Minneapolis in May of last year when I dusted off my old hybrid bike from middle school, pumped up the tires, bought a helmet, and started to move around the newly thawed city.

My heart mended on a bike and in turn, I fell madly in love with the city around me. Minneapolis is a great city to bike in. There are bike lanes and lakefront trails and drivers who, characteristic of "Minnesota Nice," use archaic lights called turn signals when moving about the streets.

I moved to DC this September and left my bike behind. The first week I took the Metro. Before long, my commute began to wear on my soul and empty my pockets. I realized buying a bike would both allow me to be a moving, breathing part of the city and save me money. I scoured Craigslist until I found the perfect, girly, single speed with turquoise wheels, a bright pink chain and little yellow stars on the spokes.

I now commute ten miles to work each morning and the same distance home. I ride Georgia Ave from Silver Spring where passing drivers tell me to get off the road. I turn off at Aspen Street then follow the sleepy hills of 14th Street south to the bustling obstacle course of Columbia Heights.

Here, I pop over to 11th and ride south in a sea of bikers to Pennsylvania Avenue, the home stretch. I love Penn. The buildings part and the morning sun shines as I head straight towards the Capitol.

The officer shrugged

I could feel and identify the adrenaline pulsing through me. My chest felt light and my hands were shaking. I had a hard time concentrating on what was happening around me. I had never been in an accident with a car and was unsure of the procedure.

I kept looking at the police officer, waiting for him to take action or at least give me options. He nervously stood there, afraid to make eye contact and unsure of what to do next. I didn't know if I should take down her car insurance and license plate information. I didn't know if I should file an accident report or what that meant. I didn't know why he wasn't ticketing her for hazardous driving.

Based on his actions, it didn't seem he knew the answer to these questions either.

Finally, I asked for her information. I took down her name, address, and phone number, then looked at the officer and asked if there was any other information I needed. He shrugged.

Eventually the woman drove off and he waited until I calmed down. I got back on my bike and slowly and cautiously rode down Penn the rest of the way to work.

Biking shouldn't be a risk

When I arrived, I was still shaken. I am a member of WABA's Women & Bicycles community and follow the group on Facebook. I posted about the incident under another post about the poor installation of the Zebras intended to stop illegal U-turns through the bike lane.

The comment thread exploded with outraged lady cyclists who showed me where law enforcement failed to follow through on enforcing laws put in place to protect me. By failing to cite the driver and not follow procedure to report cycling accidents, the officer stripped me of any recourse in case my bike or body ended up more injured than I originally thought.

While I am okay, my bike frame is bent and my front wheel wobbles. As a result of the officer's inaction, the burden of these necessary bicycle repairs now falls on my shoulders.

Biking through the city alongside this cycling community is the best part of living in DC. This accident is bigger than this one incident. It is about all of us, and the risk we take each day. It is about the fear of knowing it could have been so much worse.

I will continue to ride my pretty little single speed through this city, with her bent frame and all.

I demand to do so without the fear that I am risking my life.


"It must have been your fault. C'mon. You are a biker."

Getting in a crash is one of the scariest things that can happen to a cyclist. Even worse is when police assume that bicyclists are always at fault, even if they've got evidence to the contrary.

The crash about to happen. Photo captured from MPD surveillance video.

On a pleasant March morning in 2011, I was on my way to work, biking south on 14th St NW in the center of the right lane. As I approached W Street, I looked to make sure I had ample time to cross. The light was green. As I left the intersection, an SUV driver made a left turn across traffic, directly into my path. All I could do was hit the brakes hard.

The next thing I knew, I was on my back in the middle of the street. I tried to sit up, but failed pathetically and landed back on the road. My glasses were in a mangled heap nearby. Seconds later, some cyclists stopped by. None had seen the collision, but they locked my bike at the scene and helped me to a safe place. Someone called an ambulance, which showed up a few minutes later.

In the ambulance, Carlos Carter, a DC police officer, asked me what happened, and I told him. Once the EMTs realized I had hit my head, it was straight onto a backboard and off to the emergency room.

At George Washington University Hospital, an X-ray found that my shoulder was separated and several ligaments were torn. Doctors took me to a CAT scanner to check for broken bones.

During the test, Officer Carter entered the room. He asked me to sign a ticket for running a red light. I asked him to take a look at footage since I was certain I hadn't. He wasn't interested and asked me to sign the ticket and admit fault. I didn't. He left.

Video proves that I was right

Often that would have been the end of the story, but, thankfully, not this one. I was confident that I was right, but after spending a day at the hospital, I began to doubt myself. When the police report was ready, I picked up a copy. Both the driver and another witness said I had run a red light.

Once I was mobile again, I returned to the scene of the collision. I tried to reconcile their version with mine. Was it possible that the light showed red in their direction but green in mine? I watched a few light cycles: the lights turned red at the same time. As I watched the cars roll through, I took a careful look around and noticed a camera with a Metropolitan Police Department label.

The camera was part of MPD's CCTV Neighborhood-Based Cameras program. After calling the department, I learned that I had to file a DC Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the footage, which is erased every 7 to 10 days. Thanks to the careful work of Commander James Crane, Kaylin Junge Castelli, and Ofc. E.A. Hoffstetter, I was able to obtain the footage before it was deleted.

Here is the relevant segment. I appear 32 seconds into the video.

The video was extremely clear: I did everything right, while the driver did something dangerous and in violation of traffic laws. At 9:13:09 am (7 seconds into the video clip above), the light turned green. At 9:13:42 (32 seconds in), I appear on screen, and less than 2 seconds later, I cross the intersection. At 9:13:44.524, the driver made a left turn. 8 more cars pass through the intersection. At 9:14:08, the light turns red.

I was left with the same question I had before: why did the driver turn? She claimed that I ran a red light, which meant she saw me but decided to turn anyway. Or maybe she didn't see me? I was wearing a bright orange jacket, and it wasn't very sunny or dark out. Maybe she had really bad vision, she didn't look, or wanted to hit me on purpose?

I will never really know for sure, but I do know that my shoulder ligaments will never regrow. I really wish she had bothered to look.

MPD refuses to admit its error in crash reporting

Now it was time to take action against the claims that I was at fault. I returned to the Third District police station, where a supervisor told me that only the officer who wrote the report and the ticket could change it. He asked me to tell my story again.

"Wait, you mean, you were biking and you want a ticket canceled?" he said, incredulous. "We all know how bikers behave. It must have been your fault. C'mon. You are a biker."

When I suggested that he review the video, he refused. The supervisor said he'd contact the officer but that I shouldn't expect anything to come of it, as I was a bicyclist.

So I filed an appeal. I scheduled a hearing and brought my evidence, but the officer didn't bother to show up. The ticket was canceled. It took an extra several hours of unnecessary hassle, but it felt great.

However, to get compensation for my permanent injury, my medical bills, lost work, pain and suffering, I had to sue the driver and her insurance company. It's hard to do in DC, which along with Maryland, Virginia and 2 other states, uses the "contributory negligence" standard for liability after crashes. Under that standard, if the victim was doing anything at all wrong, no matter how small, he or she can't collect any damages.

Without the video, it would've been nearly impossible to prove that I did everything right. But thanks to the footage and the work of Patrick Regan and Paul Cornoni of Regan, Zambri, Long, and Betram, I subsequently sued and then settled with the driver and her insurance company, receiving compensation for my permanent partial disability.

I would rather the whole thing never happened, but it's refreshing to know that the legal system can sometimes help hold negligent parties accountable and compensate those that they harm.

What I learned

From this experience, I learned two things. One is that police officers need substantially more training in different types of bicycle-automobile crashes. A driver turning left into oncoming bike traffic is a common form of collision, and that driver is usually at fault. Officer Carter botched the incident report by not asking the right questions.

Once the driver claimed I ran a red light, meaning she admitted to seeing me, the officer should have asked her why she decided to cause a collision, rather than assuming I was at fault. This would have helped him write the correct tickets and prepare an accurate report. And when someone shows up with clear evidence in their favor, he should've admitted his error, apologized, and fixed it.

Second, I learned that if you get hit by someone while bicycling, check for cameras. Without them, you'll have to fight against the assumption that you were operating in an unsafe way, no matter what the driver did.


Feds will stop hyping effectiveness of bike helmets

Two federal government agencies will withdraw their longstanding claims that bicycle helmets reduce the risk of a head injury by 85%. The decision comes in response to a petition the Washington Area Bicyclists Association (WABA) filed under the federal Data Quality Act.

Photo by dno1967b on Flickr.

In 1989, a study in Seattle estimated that helmets prevent 85% of head injuries. Later efforts to replicate those results found a weaker connection between helmets and head injuries, but public health advocates, government web sites, and the news media often present it as fact.

Bad information can cause problems, even when it is promoted with the best intentions. If people think that helmets stop almost all head injuries, consumers will not demand better helmets, and legislators may feel it makes sense to require everyone to wear one. WABA asked two federal agencies to correct the misinformation, and after a lengthy process, they've agreed to do so.

How effective are bicycle helmets?

In theory, helmets should absorb the shock from a crash. If your head strikes the ground or a vehicle, your brain could be seriously shaken by the sudden deceleration. With a helmet, the foam around your head forms a cushion.

They can also prevent head fractures by spreading the force of the impact. It's like the difference between being hit on the head by a rock or a beach ball with the same weight.

It's hard to tell how often helmets actually prevent head injuries, however. Experiments on people are unethical, so instead researchers collect hospital data on people involved in bicycle crashes.

In 1989, a team of researchers led by Dr. Robert S. Thompson, a preventative care specialist at the Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound, collected data about cyclists in Seattle who went to area hospitals after a crash. Only 7% of the cyclists with head injuries wore helmets, but 24% of those without head injuries did wear helmets. Their statistical analysis, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, estimated that helmets had reduced the risk of a head injury by 85%.

Dr. Thompson's study was a "case-control study" like those that first found a link between smoking and cancer. There is no true "control" group, but epidemiologists say these studies are good for showing whether something has a good or bad effect on health, though not for quantifying it.

Dozens of researchers sought to replicate the Thompson findings in their own communities. They also found that helmets reduce the risk of head injuries, but less frequently than Thompson's team found. Some studies even found that helmets increase the risk of neck injuries. If you consider the entire body of research rather than just one study, and look at both head and neck injuries, helmets only reduce the risk of injury by about 15% to 45% .

Nonetheless, public health advocates seized on the 85% estimate as a good way to communicate risk: failing to wear a helmet makes you more than 6 times as likely to experience a head injury. Government websites and newspapers have repeated it to the point where it has become ubiquitous in discussions about bicycle helmets.

Misinformation encourages helmet laws, discourages better helmets

Bicycle safety is one of WABA's central missions. It requires helmets on all rides that it organizes, and it sponsors the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, an independently-funded organization that reviews bicycle helmets and encourages improvements in their design. In the 1990's, WABA supported proposals to require children under the age of 16 to wear bicycle helmets, which eventually became law.

But WABA draws the line at laws requiring adults to wear helmets. Such laws do little to promote safety, but they discourage bike sharing and other uses of bicycles for short trips.

This year, WABA fought hard against a bill in the Maryland General Assembly that would have required all adults to wear bicycle helmets on any trip, no matter how short. The Maryland Department of Transportation supported the mandatory helmet bill, citing the 85% estimate, while an article about it in the Washington Post cited a figure from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that helmets prevent 80% of head injuries. Fortunately, objections from cyclists persuaded the bill's sponsor not to move forward with it.

Recently, most helmet research has focused on making helmets cool, rather than more protective. Better ventilation and more fashionable designs might encourage more people to buy and wear helmets, but it does not make them safer. Could that be because everyone is assuming that helmets are already 85% effective? Would that change if people thought helmets were less than 50% effective?

WABA pushed agencies to correct the misinformation

Last February, I sent emails to both CDC and NHTSA, pointing out that the 85% estimate is incorrect and providing citations to newer research. Laurie Beck, an epidemiologist from CDC promised to remove the error.

Meanwhile, NHTSA staff told me that they were too busy to discuss the matter, so we made a formal "request for correction" under the Data Quality Act, which requires information on federal web sites to be accurate and supported by appropriate research.

Two months later, NHTSA agreed to remove the 85% estimate from its website. We expect other agencies to follow the lead of NHTSA and CDC, though some may need some encouragement.

This probably won't be the last we hear this factoid. Some nongovernmental public health advocates have ignored the results of the last 20 years of research and won't correct their stump speeches simply because the federal government removes an outdated estimate from its websites.

Will NHTSA step forward? The agency funds a lot of data collection efforts, and it clearly seems to think that the public needs to know how effective helmets are. Now that it concedes that it has been propagating the wrong answer for all these years, will it fund the research needed to provide the correct answer?

A version of this post is cross-posted at WABA Quick Release.


A driver ran a red light, hit me, and fled

On Wednesday, a driver on Massachusetts Avenue hit me while making an illegal and dangerous turn onto 9th Street NW. I was bicycling east on Massachusetts Avenue, waiting to cross 9th Street on the south side crosswalk. The driver fled the scene.

The intersection. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

I travel this area frequently, and know this is a dangerous intersection because it includes a right red arrow to allow pedestrians to cross 9th Street safely even while other through lanes get a green light. Many drivers nevertheless illegally turn right when the light turns green for people continuing straight.

I have asked the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) and Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) on multiple occasions to add enforcement here, but have never witnessed any.

I have seen this behavior numerous times before at this spot, so I am ready for it. However, this time the first car, a black Chevy Suburban waiting to turn right, remained stopped. But the driver second in line could not stand for this, changed lanes to the left, then drove around the Suburban to make the right turn.

I saw this coming from the corner of my field of vision, but it was too late. The driver cut in front of me, clipping my front tire with the rear corner of his car. It was a grazing blow, but enough to knock me off the bike.

The driver left the scene, never bothering to stop. Fortunately, my spill was fairly minor and I was able to continue to Union Station with little injury. However, if I had been a few seconds faster, I would have been more squarely in his path and would likely be in the hospital.

Without enforcement, lawlessness runs rampant

There was no police officer to witness the incident. Police can't be be everywhere and catch everything. However, I've also seen MPD simply ignore dangerous infractions by drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians occurring directly in front of them.

Last weekend, while riding in the 15th Street cycletrack, a driver illegally turned left against the protected left turn signal at 15th and U Street NW, right behind my wife and me. By coincidence, a MPD patrol unit was directly behind this illegally turning driver but did nothing.

On the same trip, my wife and I witnessed two illegal U-turns on Pennsylvania Avenue right in front of police cars and officers stationed along the street for the marathon. At the time, there were lots of pedestrians and cyclists around but they refused to enforce against illegal driving right in front of them.

This is even more frustrating because this episode occurred during the regional Street Smart campaign, an annual campaign to raise safety awareness and increase enforcement. Mayor Vincent Gray stood with MPD Chief Cathy Lanier to announce DC's part of the program a week ago, alongside advocacy groups such as WABA. The Pennsylvania Avenue cycle track was supposed to be an area targeted for enforcement during this campaign.

Drivers are not the only problem. Cyclists and pedestrians also contribute when they ride down one-way bike lanes in the wrong direction, run out in front of cyclists and drivers without bothering to look, and more.

The roads, bike lanes, and sidewalks all function as a transportation system and users interact with this system according to a set of laws. When these laws go unenforced for long periods of time it creates a broken system of lawlessness.

Mayor Vincent Gray has called for a 25% mode share for walking and cycling by 2032. To reach this goal, sustained and consistent traffic enforcement will become pivotal. The city doesn't need any more public safety campaigns, advertisements, lip service, and promises. We need


A misinformed driver almost right hooked me

Tuesday morning, I was commuting along my normal route by bicycle when a driver almost hit me in a "right hook" turn. I wasn't especially surprised by that, which is sadly very common, but I was surprised by her reaction.

I commute from Greenbelt to Silver Spring. Generally when I bike, I ride 7 miles to College Park Metro, and park in the bike cage there before continuing my commute by Metro. Much of my route is on off-street paths or streets with bike lanes. Ivy Lane, where this incident occurred, does have bike lanes in both directions.

Image from Google Street View.

Ivy Lane is a short street between Kenilworth Avenue and Cherrywood Lane, near the Greenbelt Metro station. It passes through a suburban office park, but because it connects Old Greenbelt with the Metro and Greenbelt West, it is very popular with cyclists.

As I crested the hill on Ivy, I began to pick up speed. About this time, a platoon of cars released by the light at Kenilworth Avenue began to pass me. Most gave me a wide berth, moving into the left-turn lane to pass me, even though I was in the bike lane.

The first of the cars in this platoon was a silver sedan, and as we approached the entrance to 6404/6406 Ivy Lane, the car signaled and turned right without first moving into the bike lane. That car was about 2 car-lengths ahead of me when the driver turned. The second car continued straight ahead.

Then the third car, a maroon Ford Explorer, began to pass me. As the rear wheel was even with my handlebars, the driver initiated her right turn into 6404/6406. I jammed on the brakes, and swerved toward the curb. I missed colliding with her vehicle by less than 6 inches.

As it happened, the security guard who patrols this office park was waiting to turn out of the same driveway. As I was avoiding the collision, I yelled loudly, and having witnessed the near miss and hearing me yell, the guard quickly turned around and went after the motorist. I followed.

When I caught up to the guard, he had flagged down the driver and was talking to her. As I biked up, I heard her say, "I didn't hit him." I responded, "You only missed me by about 6 inches."

Her response stunned me, and probably goes a long way to describing the plight of cyclists in this country. She said to the guard and me:

I had my signal on. You were supposed to stop for me.
In the first place, this is completely inaccurate. When driving on a street with bike lanes, the bike lane is considered a regular lane. You always have to yield to cyclists in the bike lane if you need to turn across it.

And the appropriate maneuver is to first merge into the bike lane before turning right. In this case, she should have merged behind me, since she did not have room to pass first.

In the second place, because she initiated the turn before she passed me, I really had no way of knowing that her signal was on anyway. Yes, cars have signals on the front, too. But as the front of her car passed me, I was focused on watching the car in front of her, because I did want to be right hooked by that driver either.

The woman told the security guard, "I really need to go. I don't have time for this." And I said, "I'm happy to let you go, but first I want to make sure you understand what you did wrong. You could have seriously injured me or killed me."

I explained that she should have moved into the bike lane first. I also said that if she didn't believe me, that she should look up the law for herself.

She said "sorry." (By her tone, she clearly wasn't).

I told her that I didn't want her to be sorry. I wanted her to not do this again.

At this point, we both went on our ways. But I thought about the experience for the rest of my ride.

I wondered whether I should have acted differently following the near-miss. I did not call the police. I assumed (perhaps incorrectly) that since there was no contact, they wouldn't consider it worthy of followup. But a friend of mine who has had experiences like this in Greenbelt says that the GPD will follow up to educate a driver if a cyclist or pedestrian reports a tag number after an infraction.

It's clear that the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration doesn't do enough to educate new drivers about how to interact with cyclists.

But the State Highway Administration and local jurisdictions could also do more. The woman who almost hit me was probably in her late-40s. No amount of improvement to the driving test would have captured her.

In my experience biking in this section of Greenbelt, the right hook is probably the most common issue.

It seems that drivers need to be better educated about how they're supposed to behave around cyclists. The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices does include sign R4-4, which applies when a right turn lane is present to the right of the bike lane.

But the MUTCD does not seem to include any signage for when there is no right turn lane. I created a modified version of the R4-4, which could serve in situations like this. But it will likely take a while for anything new to make it into the MUTCD.

Left: Sign R4-4 from the MUTCD. Right: My modified version.

Local jurisdictions, though, could have a freer hand in situations like this. Ivy Lane, after all, is a Greenbelt city street.

The Greenbelt Police Department does have a history of doing targeted driver education and enforcement, so that's another way the city could work toward resolving the issue.

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