By Jim Langley In case you missed it, road cyclists and pedestrians received grim news last week courtesy of the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety. In a widely reported article titled Hit-and-Run Deaths Hit Record High, the AAA gave some shocking and worrying stats including,
- More than one hit-and-run crash occurs every minute on US roads
- These resulted in 2,049 deaths in 2016, the highest number on record
- Which is a 60% increase since 2009 or 7.2% increase per year
And then, there’s this,
- NEARLY 65% of PEOPLE KILLED IN HIT-AND-RUN CRASHES WERE PEDESTRIANS OR BICYCLISTS
The only thing I find surprising about this news is that it took so long for an organization like AAA to take notice. Here in Northern California we’ve seen the fatalities and serious crashes escalate for years – not all hit-and-runs, but the outcomes are the same.
I don’t remember all the riders affected. I try to not think about it or else I might become afraid to ride. But some of the incidents haunt me, like the Tesla driver who veered across four lanes and killed Santa Cruz County Cycling Club riders on a beautifully sunny Saturday morning. Or the California Highway Patrol officer who did almost the same thing barreling through a longtime established weekend groupride in the San Jose area. And, the Masters NorCal time trialer who was hit head-on and killed during an organized event with posted road signs.
Clearly – to me at least – something fundamental has changed. Where once drivers understood that their first responsibility was driving safely, many now are completely ignorant of how dangerous their car is. Or else, how could any rational human text while driving?
Only a few weeks ago, my former teammate Matthew – now a semi-pro criterium racer – was run down from behind while spinning through Davenport, California – a sleepy little town with signs and flashing amber lights before and after the city limits alerting drivers to slow down and pay attention.
But, it didn’t help Matthew. The car behind the car that mowed him down said the driver simply drove right over 6-foot 2-inch tall Matthew who was riding his Specialized on the shoulder of the road. Matthew was knocked unconscious and had to be airlifted to a hospital in the Silicon Valley where he underwent emergency spinal surgery. He survived, but his future as a cyclist is uncertain.
I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe future autonomous cars will help. But not if we let them operate like the Uber that killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona in March. Yet, if we had cars that actually couldn’t hit things – no matter what, it might reduce the deadly errors so many American drivers routinely make today.
Reworking our speed limits might help, too, but that’s not easy to change or police. Here in California, for example, speeders determine what the speed limit is – believe it or not. Meanwhile, in Europe it’s understood, accepted and proven that lowering speed limits is one of the easiest and best ways to reduce deaths and injuries to cyclists and pedestrians. It’s because once cars are allowed to travel 30mph or faster, crashes with pedestrians and cyclists are far more likely to be fatal.
There is a little hope, though. Such as organizations like Vision Zero, which started in Sweden in the 90’s and holds promise for improving safety for all road users. It’s a unique and different approach, with the goal of preventing all traffic collisions. I encourage you to read about here. Our Community Traffic Safety Organization has started a local Vision Zero program, maybe you’d like to, too.
And can driver technology help? Bicycle Retailer reported just yesterday that ten different manufacturers have joined the efforts of Ford and Trek to develop advanced automobile software to warn drivers about nearby pedestrians and bicycle riders. The bicycle to vehicle (called “B2V”) technology would be part of a cellular communication network that connects vehicles with “everything,” including bikes, pedestrians, road infrastructure and safety warnings and other elements.
As May is National Bike Month in the USA, it will be nice to see a bunch of new riders take to the roads for Bike to Work Week, May 14-18 and/or Bike to Work Day, May 18. But, if we don’t hurry up and change something with the way our roads, vehicles and laws work, it’s unlikely these newbies will stick with road riding very long.
Ride total: 8,891
Next article: Assos Mille GT Clima Cycling Jacket Review
I don’t think reworking our speed limits will do a darn thing since most people drive at least 10 over the posted limits! Since the reason for the large uptick in hit and run with cyclists the real reason behind that is the use of cell phones, what’s known as distracted driving, the cure for that lies inside every cell phone…it’s called GPS. How can GPS help reduce these accidents? By simply telling the GPS that when a vehicle is moving in excess of 20 mph the GPS will turn off the phone allowing no voice or text calls to either come in or go out with no option to disengage it, real simple. This feature in GPS system of the cell phone can work that way, some police departments are doing this with the patrol car computers. I can hear people crying already that they need their phone, or what if there is an emergency…first off for over 100 years people never had phones in cars and they all survived and did just fine, at least with a cell phone you can pull over and use the phone without looking for a payphone; secondly the phone could always work if you have an emergency by dialing 911.
And to rely on autonomous systems to do the work is being stupid with technology, there have already been many accidents with these systems not working right including hitting a cyclist or two because the system didn’t identify the cyclist. We can’t become placid in our response to being responsible for our driving, that should remain our top responsibility when behind the wheel, but in today’s world no wants to accept responsibility for their actions so let’s just pass driving part of it to the autonomous system, right.
Hear,hear. The more automatic devices cars have the lazier drivers get. Hold drivers responsible, not electronic gadgets.
Distracted driving is a big problem. Aggressive driving is not much better. And autonomous vehicles will just move the liability to a corporation from the driver.
But this is not the core problem.
Ultimately, the core problem is how a crash is handled. In most instances, it is called an “accident”, like in “oops, the car (not the driver) accidently ran over someone.” Or, the cyclist had it coming since he/she was not wearing a helmet. Or, bikes break road laws all the time so we as drivers are absolved. I can not wait until the excuse will be that the cyclist was not wearing his/her required location beacon so the autonomous car did not see the cyclist. Once again it will be the cyclist’s fault. Currently, the civil liability/chance of prosecution of a crash is much less than the difference in momentum of the two parties. (momentum = speed times weight).
This is a result of our car-oriented society. Most legislators, police, and criminal prosecutors are vehicle drivers. Few are pedestrians or cyclists. So the penalties for injuring or killing a cyclist or a pedestrial are designed to be very low and mainly civil, even if they are pursued. If a vehicle driver knew the chance of criminal prosecution was much more likely, even for an injury, it might improve things. Actually autonomous vehicles will probably make things much worse for cyclists as the likelihood of criminal prosecution will be even lower: “Oh, Mrs. Smith, sorry our Google/Tesla car killed little Johnny, here is $20,000. And don’t waste your time try to find someone to criminally prosecute us, we have an army of lawyers ready to scare off some local prosecutor.”
Unfortunately, money in politics talks, and the money from everything that moves with fuel and electricity is way bigger and richer than the money in bikes and walking. We as cyclists may have a few small victories but, sorry to say, we are going to lose this war.
John Marsh says
There is no single magic bullet to making drivers on the road safer in the U.S.. It will take a number of different approaches — along with a massively orchestrated lobbying effort and a ton of political will (I’m afraid neither of which exist right now).
I touched on a couple of major points re: this in an article in RBR a couple of years ago: https://www.roadbikerider.com/correcting-the-false-equivalencies-in-the-cars-vs-cyclists-debate-d5/
To borrow from that lengthy piece:
I don’t believe our country will ever be anywhere near as safe as many Western European cycling countries, because the U.S. will never adopt the strict liability laws that protect cyclists in Europe. In many countries there, the driver is assumed to always be at fault in an accident with a cyclist unless the driver can prove otherwise.
Can you imagine how different it would be here (and in other similar countries like England and Australia) if drivers approached every interaction with a cyclist bearing in mind that they will be held accountable for any accident with a cyclist? And if drivers were taught to respect, pay attention to, and steer clear of, cyclists from the moment they first started learning to drive?
I can more than imagine it; I’ve ridden several times on both road bikes and city cruisers in Europe – both in urban areas and in the bucolic countryside. And I have nearly always felt safe and respected. I seldom feel either on the roads in the U.S.
The absolute keys to me are:
– make getting a drivers license in the U.S. much, much tougher, and the training light years better. In Germany, for example, it costs a few thousand Euros to get a license, a driver must be 18 to get that license, AND there is both comprehensive coursework (including that important part about cyclists and pedestrians always having the right of way, etc.), as well as thorough on-the-road training.
– strict liability laws enacted, like those mentioned above
– laws strictly limiting the use of mobile phones and like devices while driving. (Georgia’s governor just signed such a law yesterday, which prohibits touching your mobile phone while driving, with very limited exceptions.
– as far as controlling speed, using more traffic cameras that record license plates and automatically mail out tickets and deduct points of licenses. We know that it’s totally unrealistic to think police on patrol can and will enforce most of the “protective” laws like 3-foot passing laws. This seems like one use of technology that could provide a benefit.
Again, though, I’m just not sanguine that in this divisive political era, combined with the very decentralized state-by-state approach to even traffic laws, that much will happen soon.
These things — and many others, though — are certainly worth roadies fighting for, in whatever way they can!
tony m says
Distracted driving is probably the number one cause of the increase. Not sure of the viability, but building in some kind of functionality to disable certain cell phone functionality (text, mail, etc.) when they sense they are moving above a certain speed would be a start.
Andy Bauer says
Furtherance on making roads bike safe, the design parameters for autonomous vehicles that provide perspective :
Civil, mechanical, electrical and computer engineers are presently designing for semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles. In all the design work, collision avoidance operations are being built within the autonomous vehicle system. One of the biggest early on problems for the engineers to solve is having the autonomous vehicle perform the best collision avoidance process, given the risk that human errors are happening realtime around the autonomous vehicle. The mass momentum calculations could result in a collision and now the least cost collision must be performed by the autonomous vehicle–but what is the least cost collision-people, deer, or bicycles on the road or people within other vehicles on the road? What really matters is to avoid all collisions and this translates into realtime vehicle speed control based on constantly changing traffic and environmental conditions. Traffic congestion on a roadway, for example, whether caused by motor vehicles, people, animals or bicyclists requires speed adjustment by approaching motor vehicles in order to avoid a collision. The design parameter is to avoid all collisions, i.e. As opposed to the autonomous vehicle being the bully on the road, taking out any smaller mass congestion, just because it can make the physics calculations to do so. Human motorists make human errors, but still possess overall capability to control their vehicle with the touch of their hands and feet, in order to safety proceed, whenever they come upon congestion on the roadway, whether vehicles, people, animals or bicyclists. The safe speed takes congestion into consideration as opposed to a posted speed limit or speed capability of a vehicle. Many bicyclists have written about their fears of being involved in collisions with motor vehicles, which actually is a fear of being encountered by a human error motorist or being bullied by a motorist. Riding two abreast reduces the visual identification error. As a society, we are attempting to reduce bullying by virtue of bigness as much as possible and culture, law, and rules are how society is attempting to manage the bullying.
For a start, improvement of bicycle travel space on the roads should include reducing speed limits on most roads, particularly to accommodate sight distance. And secondarily, speed limits should be reduced with the objective that motor vehicle traffic is actually moving just in time for when the next traffic signal is changing to green. It is very often that motor vehicles are going 35 to 40 mph between traffic signals and then have to completely stop at a red light–making average travel speed less than approx. 20 mph. If speed limits were reduced to the practical average speed, often in the 15 to 25 mph range, then bicyclists would more safely be within the mix of traffic flow–less speed differentials between motor vehicles and bicycles. And of course with reduced speed limits, there would be less accidental injuries to pedestrians and motorists as well. School zone speed limits work off the same principle of reducing speed differentials between motor vehicles and pedestrians or passenger drop offs.
It’s not a crime to run somebody over. All the driver needs to say is “I didn’t see them”. End of police investigation. No tickets are issued (like failure to yield right of way?). Not even a DUI investigation unless it’s obviously clear to the officer. March 1st Santa Fe’s SOB’s (seniors on bikes) group ride was in a pace line on the shoulder of the road. A motorist buzz them at a high rate of speed, laying on the horn as he passed. He then pulled over on the shoulder of the road, threw the car into reverse, and again at high rate of speed, backed into the group, seriously injuring many of the riders, then fled the scene. So far the driver, Jacob Brown, has only been charged with “stopping on the side of road”!!! His defense, “ the cyclists road into the back of my car. I left the scene because I feared for life when they began yelling at me”. Stopping on the side of the road, that’s all he’s been charged with. If he claims a warning light came on the charge will be dismissed.
Don Burstyn says
Until the police investigate incidents fully and the criminal courts starts putting folks in jail and families start getting multi-million dollar awards in civil cases, there is really no impedous for drivers to change any of their bad habits.
Also, see http://www.massbike.org/16seconds
Larry Best says
I think all of the above points are good ones. In the last decade cyclists have gained more rights & have been in the forefront of stricter laws protecting them. Safety measures like sharrows & designated bike lanes, widely “broadcasting” that cyclists have a right to the road, in most states the 3″ law or similar has been adopted, & the fact that we are entitled to the entire lane if necessary among others. From what I’ve seen locally & talking with non cyclists, these advances for cyclists have literally infuriated drivers. I certainly don’t have any evidence, but I wonder if the already strong animosity of drivers & cyclists has produced a push back situation. “If they won’t stick to the bike trails, sidewalks, or the extreme right in lanes, push the SOBs off the roads. Not meaning to kill them, but enough to teach them a lesson that they must defer to motor vehicles. This, of course, results in deaths or serious injury. My God…I hope I’m wrong about this, but IMO it’s another factor to consider. My friends, neighbors, & co-workers who aren’t cyclists are vehement beyond belief on this point. Any attempt to engage them in the least offensive conversation regarding literally anything re: cyclists produces blinding fury on their part.
Arthur Monty says
Yes, Larry, unfortunately I think you’re right, the motorist feels he pays for the roads, and they are his to do what he wants with his vehicle, it’s a sad state of affairs, and we are the victims, I will also add, cyclists also need to be mindful of respecting red lights, stops, etc, even if the law allows us to ride two by two, common sense should tell you if you are slowing trafic down, even just a bit, someone will get angry, and try to “teach you a lesson”, once in a vehicle drivers become the masters of THEIR universe..I live in France five months a year and I find much more respect for cyclists, but here the drivers are also help liable more often.