Saturday, October 1, 2011

2011 Cyclists Fatalities Already Alarming. What Can Be Done?

Fatality Spikes
The last few weeks have felt like an epidemic to many cyclists in Los Angeles. BikingInLA reported 52 cyclist fatalities as of September 24 and there have been more since then.

Likewise, Seattle reported 10 fatalities so far this year. Three of those have occurred since July, according to StreetsBlog.

Spikes Not Pervasive
The spike hasn't been seen everywhere. In the San Francisco Bay Area, various news agencies have reported less than 10 for the year. But that's down from 15 in 2009, according to this Bike Accident Tracker. In New York City, reported the city's 10th fatality on September 4. But that's down from 12 fatalities in NYC in 2009, according to stats cited in the Village Voice. Obviously, the year is not over yet but these numbers are relatively flat given the growth in cycling's popularity and compared to Seattle and LA.

Among improved instrastructure, law enforcement, and training, only law enforcement is quick to implement.
So, as many are asking, "what is going on?" And how do we prevent this? Despite an incredible, perhaps cynical, lack of data collected by our governments on cycling fatalities, we know from experience where solutions lie: improved infrastructure, law enforcement, and training. More detail can surely be revealed about the cause of the spikes this year but simply reviewing some of the cases shows these 3 components would help a lot.

In Seattle, Seattlebikeblog and others have already identified incomplete and/or poorly designed bicycle infrastructure as a cause. In LA, a common cause is hit and runs by drivers. In New York, one cause was a cyclist going the wrong way down a street. Studies to precisely identify the root causes of all these incidents take time. What can be done to prevent more people from dying right now?

Short Term Solutions: Few
Among improved instrastructure, law enforcement, and training, only law enforcement is quick to implement. New bike lanes or training programs won't save the cyclist who dies tomorrow but better law enforcement might.

Law Enforcement
However, better law enforcement requires the right laws to be in place and resources, a.k.a. dollars, to take action. As of this writing, Governor of California, Jerry Brown, just vetoed cycling advocate's third attempt to pass a "3 feet rule": SB910. Even more challenging, he did so at the urging of the CHP.

Operation Safe Passage
Even so, law enforcement does act on similar issues. Right now, a collaboration of police agencies and the CHP are implementing "Operation Safe Passage", a program to enforce "zero tolerance" of hazardous driving around schools. This operation was planned in advanced but it was able to start just a day after a 6 year old pedestrian was killed.

Since cyclists are not concentrated in one area like a school, such a program is tougher to scope to address cycling risks. Nevertheless, something similar could be designed and implemented quickly if the political will exists.

Sources of Political Will
So where to get political will? The three classic sources are money, publicity, and pooling support with other groups. All are already at work for cycling in various degrees. With immediacy being the current goal, only one stands out.

Money Can't Buy Us Love
In the current system, money could very possibly buy us love but can we afford it and do we want to perpetuate this perverted system? Regardless, using money to lobby for cycling has obvious drawbacks for the cycling community. Bicycles alone do not represent the dollars that cars and other industries do.

Bicycle Revenue Connection Still Fuzzy
Many studies show bike-friendly communities do generate lots of revenue but the association with all those dollars is not as direct. Any bicycle lobby will find it tough to compete until it consolidates financial support from all the ancillary businesses that benefit from bike-friendly streets. And that won't happen until more bike-friendly communities are created which, ironically, requires more lobbying.

So if money can't buy cyclists love (at least for now), what about publicity? These tragedies have produced that. Seattle's mayor plans to hold a bicycle safety summit in response to all the recent cycling fatalities. However, summits don't necessarily lead to a solution as Los Angeles knows all too well. Their mayor held a bike summit last year. Despite a lot of great cycling developments in LA since then, the deaths keep coming.

Even Alan Dershowitz Can't Get Justice
In order for such events to be effective, they need the focus of the greater majority and not just the cyclist community. As Alan Dershowitz's experience shows, as he tries to identify all those involved in his sister-in-law's death, going it alone to get justice is tough. If one of the foremost attorney's in the country can't get justice, it is clear other forces need to be employed.

With a high enough profile, Mr. Dershowitz would get a cooperative DA and Los Angeles could immediately find/raise money for officers to clamp down on texters, speeders, and drunks causing the hit and runs. Without that larger audience, no summit or anything else will generate enough political will to do much more than is already being done.

Publicity Possibilities
AIDS Awareness
Nevertheless, getting that focus is not impossible. Good lessons for how to do this lie in how AIDS awareness was expanded beyond the minorities that first experienced the disease. Again, the problem is time: expanding AIDS awareness took decades.

Occupy Wall Street
So what can be done in the short term? The group Occupy Wall Street is showing one way right now: a protest. However, this is having limited success because their message is not clear and they are not appealing to the majority's self interest. This lack of focus may be intentional but it still leaves the mainstream confused and apathetic.

Overcoming Distraction
If you want a distracted person's attention, you can't waste time telling them what you are against, you've got to tell them what you are for, what you want and why they should care, and do this instantly. That's more rally or vigil than protest.

Celebrity Association
One way to instantly get people to care is to simply get familiar faces associated with your event. The Occupy Wall Street protest really took off when Michael Moore and Susan Sarandon showed up: shallow but true. The other way to engage is to illustrate the magnitude of the loss, again instantly, e.g. the AIDS quilt.

Rally For A Common Cause
This is what cyclists can do in the short term. Hold a vigil or rally for those we've lost with something visual and large of which distracted passers by or TV viewers will take note, and with a clear way for empathetic people to respond. With a high enough profile to the event, it is possible to obtain substantial new resources quickly.

Pooling Support
Pooling support with groups sharing common interests is yet another way to build support. In this case, the obvious group is pedestrians. Many groups already combine cyclists and pedestrians for this reason. This group is as financially challenged as the cyclist group, so joint efforts may not have a huge impact in lobbying any legislature. Nevertheless, it could potentially have a huge impact on any rally. Like the cycling community, pedestrians suffer greatly from cars. Many people do not cycle but almost everyone is, or has been, a pedestrian at some point. Holding a combined rally would appeal to the majority's self interest.

Long Term Solutions
A lot of the long term work is already being done. The goal is obviously to do it more effectively and swiftly. One well-known key to that is to fill the data gap. Enact legislation that forces officers and other officials to collect detailed data on bicycle traffic volume and accidents.

Data gives the few intrepid politicians out there the foothold they need to take unpopular or unprecedented action. Unfortunately, many industries like the oil, tobacco, and auto industries know this so they sometimes lobby against collecting the data.  Nevertheless, from good data can come good infrastructure, training, as well as the good laws and enforcement.

After supporting any rally in support of better law enforcement, my focus is going to be on legislature that improves data collection on all cycling activity including these accidents. At best, we need to know as much detail as possible about the cause of these tragedies. At least, we need to concretely document for the powers that be how many more of us are now out there.

None of this will bring those victims back but for those of us that feel we must do something, these are constructive and tenable.


  1. I believe that the start would be an enforcement of road laws that apply to bikers and motor vehicles. The same across the board. Otherwise there will always be room for error.

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