Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Vulnerable road users

There's a lot of chicken and the egg commentary in cycling circles about infrastructure and mode share-  from the  "if you build it, they will come" theory,  to the "if they come, they'll demand infrastructure and respect." proponents.
I saw this terrifying analysis of crash data in Ft Collins CO (from Cyclelicious via treehugger).  The thing that scared me about it is that the most fatal kind of accidents are "hit from behinds" and "sideswipes".  The thing that is so disturbing about this is  that as a defensive cyclist I can ride outside the door zone,  never overtake the right hand side of a moving vehicle,  and go to extremes to make sure my right of way is respected before entering an intersection.  However, there's nothing I can do to prevent someone texting or drunk, or just plain not paying attention from veering into me or crashing into me from behind.

I don't think that the solution to this is infrastructure or road presence, although they might help (especially protected cycle tracks. ) I'm becoming convinced that the solution is to impose extreme penalties on drivers who strike a cyclist or a pedestrian.  "I just didn't see him"  should cease to be a legal defense.  If you're driving a multi- ton steel vehicle at speed in a public space, the burden of looking where you're going should rest fully on your shoulders.  Except in some rare cases (ninja salmon come to time)  the reason that drivers don't see cyclists and pedestrians is because they're not looking for them and they're not looking for them because there are rarely any consequences for hitting one.  Such penalties exist in Europe.  I have read that in any car- pedestrian collision in the Netherlands, the driver is automatically at fault, just like a rear end collision here.  I would support taking away the license of anyone who hits a pedestrian or cyclist for a year regardless of fault,  automatically.    If the driver was behaving recklessly or was texting or drinking, there could be criminal prosecutions in parallel.

I think that until "accidents" are properly labeled "crashes"  and vunerable road users (bikes, pedestrians, people in wheelchairs) are protected by law, there will be no incentive for drivers to pay attention and truly see the people who share the road with them.

A good post on a similar topic


  1. I am confused by those findings, as they fly in the face of all other cycling-motorist collision data I have read to date (which claimed that only a very small, insignificant percentage of such collisions are drivers hitting cyclists from behind or side-sweeping). I wonder why the discrepancy.

  2. I don't think that they were saying that those were very common-it's only 8.5% of the recorded crashes, but that they were the most deadly, accounting for two of the three fatalities and 50% of the serious injuries.
    I dug into the data a little more, and interestingly the highest number of accidents by time were at rush hour (a spike at 7-8am and a spike from 3pm to 6pm. I'm sure that that reflects a decrease in overall numbers of bikers (and cars) at night.

  3. If you're intersted in comprehensive crash studies, here is an excellent one done by Mighk Wilson in Orlando.
    (I pasted a link into the name URL since blogger wouln't allow me to paste into the comment window)

    I agree that the solution is better justice. I'm not a fan of user-specific laws for enforcing road safety, though. I think we need to improve traffic justice across the board and insist that our society place a higher importance on driver responsibility. When we single out "vulnerable users," we run the risk of the response being: "Well it's too dangerous for them to be on the road, so get them off the road."

    As you pointed out about the word "accident," We've manipulated many aspects of language to obscure personal responsibility for operating a vehicle. It's part of the denial. It also points to the fact that no one will own the safety problems as changeable behavior problems. Rather, they regard traffic as an uncontrollable and dangerous force of nature (vs individuals making decisions). Therefore vulnerable users, like children, must be kept from danger.


  4. I agree. Althoough as for car v.s ped don't cars usually get the fault? I'm ignorant here. I assumed that should a car hit me while I am walking the car is to blame. As when I took my written test wasn't it all about "peds have the right of way". I think the same should hold true for bikes obviously. Not sure if it does- clearly not for either?

    When I get most freaked out about safety is really the thought of someone not paying attention and hitting me. I ride slowly. I ride visably and I ride on quiet streets and do not take risks at all. A too many cars at an intersection will bring me to the sidewalk in a blink. I'll walk through an intersection/ busy area. But the idea that someone texting or talking on the phone or god forbid drunk- just doesn't pay attention freaks my shit out. Mostly b/c if I get hit- my children get hit.

    I am appalled at the horrible behavior of people driving. The speeds and the multitasking. It makes me so angry I could spit frankly. I feel equally unsafe while walking too- so it isn't a case of - oh well I better stop biking. With our MASS crosswalks etc, I am constantly scanning the road and holding onto my kids b/c people zip through not seeing us in the SANCTIONED crosswalk and are at risk for hitting us all the time.

  5. Peds have the right of way in a crosswalk, and in MA they may get it by default, but there are just so many sickening stories about people hitting pedestrians and unless they're drunk they get off scott free. A good example is the bus driver in NY who killed a guy who was running to try to make the light. He might lose his job (and in this economy that's a real problem) but that's it.

    I think that speed would be the scariest thing out where you're biking MamaVee. When I'm out in the western burbs for work I really notice how much faster people go than in the city, even on smaller residential streets.

  6. I am amazed--honestly, amazed-- at the numbers of drivers I see talking on handheld phones (illegal here) and TEXTING while I commute with my kids by bike. I am completely a rules-follower, especially when my kids are on the bike with me. At my leisurely pace, I can see into many a car window and it is really incredible how common it is for a driver to be doing other things than simply driving.

    I joked with my husband tonight-- our next cargo bike decorations are going to be signs that read, "Please hang up and just drive/ Please stop texting and just drive. You are scaring the crap out of me."

  7. it doesn't matter how defensive one is when cycling. there is *always* a risk of being hit by a negligent driver despite best cycling practice. i once was hit from behind while cycling (with my 4yo daughter in a child seat!) in the bike lane in broad daylight. we were fortunate that the motorist was traveling at fairly low speed when he hit us (he was trying to overtake a slow moving car by passing on the right-- an illegal move), and that we weren't run over after we fell! we came away with nothing more than scratches.

    i agree with most of the above comments. the thing that shocked me most about this incident was that the driver was not ticketed. it was left entirely up to me to seek damages through the civil court system, while there was no legal disincentive for this driver to continue his bad driving habits. so i agree that it's not so much about infrastructure as it is about rigorous enforcement of laws and stiff punishment for unsafe driving.