When bikes and cars crash

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November 29, 2004 // UPDATED 4:47 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Robyn Repya
Robyn Repya

Minneapolis sees accidents increase

The city's bicycle expert, Transportation Engineer Donald Pflaum, is concerned. In recent years, Minneapolis' bicycle-car crash rates had steadily declined -- until this year, when rates went up 62 percent through August. This is the first time since 1997 accidents have gone up.

That's not news to Gene Oberpriller, owner of One on One Bicycle Studio, 117 Washington Ave. N. He's amassed a mammoth bicycle junkyard of twisted metal in his bike-shop basement, with wall panels covered in crash headlines.

Oberpriller said bicycle-car crashes are going up because of poor traffic enforcement of drivers and riders. Another factor, he says: more bicyclists on the streets, including a high rate of bike commuters coming Downtown.

Pflaum said he has researched the crash increase and concluded more riders equal more crashes. He points to local trail and bike lane development, plus a spike in bicycling during this year's bus strike.

State data provides important counterpoint to the city's numbers: crashes may be up, but injuries and fatalities are down.

Crash stats

The good news: no bicyclists have been killed in Minneapolis this year. (In 2002, according to the most recent national data, 662 bicyclists were killed in car-bike crashes.)

The bad news: in 2003, there had been 234 crashes in Minneapolis; as of October 2004, there were already 276 crashes, Pflaum said.

One-third of crashes involve kids, Pflaum said. Ten- to 15-year-olds are twice as likely to be injured as any other age group, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data.

Deaths skew older. According to NHTSA, the average age of someone killed in a bicycle-related crash in 2002 was 35.7 years versus 26.7 years for those injured.

Alan Rodgers, research analyst for the Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety, said the state bicycle injury and fatality rates have stayed nearly the same since 2002, but urban areas pose greater risk. In 2002, 300 of the state's 860 injured bicyclists were in Minneapolis and St. Paul -- 34 percent of the injuries in cities with 14 percent of the state's population.

Still, state data shows that resulting fatalities and injuries at the state and city level have slowly decreased since 1999. That means that while crashes are up in Minneapolis, fewer people report being hurt.

To pinpoint crash causes, Pflaum looked beyond demographics.

His January-August 2004 analysis revealed that the day of the week or type of weather made no difference. Most crashes occurred on dry, clear days.

Who's at fault?

Although you'd expect a fair amount of finger-pointing, bike enthusiasts and traffic engineers are cautious about assigning fault in bike-car crashes. They acknowledge the antagonism between bicyclists and drivers. However, they all say the fault is equally shared -- even if bicyclists are more likely to be injured or killed.

Lt. Jeff Rugel of the Minneapolis Police Department's Traffic Unit, says accidents are often due to drivers and pedalers who don't follow the rules of the road.

Oberpriller, who has been in many bike-car crashes himself, said he sees bicyclists run red lights and disregard traffic laws all the time. He said they do it because they can get away with it. "You can run lights right in front of the police and they're not going to do anything," he said.

Still, Oberpriller said he's seen many cases wherein bicyclists obey the rules of the road and the motorist is at fault by turning in front of bicycles and cutting them off.

Hurl Everstone, a mechanic at Calhoun Cycle, 3342 Hennepin Ave. S., knows that biking in traffic is tough because drivers don't look for bikers.

"Drivers aren't necessarily seeing you. [When you're] on a bike, they look right past you," he said.

Everstone also said motorists often underestimate bike speed, a prelude to cutting off bicyclists.

Everstone (who does not own a car) is also the creator of probiking, anticar punk rock site carsrcoffins.com. He advocates that people leave their cars at home and use alternative transportation, but he doesn't take all the blame off bicyclists.

"It's a two-way street -- no pun intended," Everstone said.

He said that bicyclists must do their part to follow traffic laws. He recommends that bicyclists try to establish eye contact with drivers and do all that they can to make sure motorists see them.

Where to bike (and not)

Through his commuting exploits, Everstone has a pretty good idea of which roads are bikable for different biking skill levels.

"Hennepin is pretty gnarly," he said. "There's just such a high traffic volume."

Everstone said deciding where to ride has a lot to do with what kind of traffic a bicyclist is comfortable with. He said the trail system in Minneapolis is excellent, and bicyclists should take advantage of it.

Trails have their own risks, though.

Bob Byers, a senior Hennepin County transportation engineer, said the county has received many complaints this year about the high rate of crashes at trail crossings, where bikes and cars mix.

He said local government must do more to improve crossing safety; the county is looking into extra signage.

Improving safety

Pflaum said city staff, police and groups such as the city's Bicycle Advisory Committee launched a campaign to educate the public about traffic and bike safety laws.

Pflaum said he wants to get the word out through public service announcements and visits to schools, since children represent such a large proportion of crash victims.

The Police Department's Rugel said he is stepping up enforcement as much as he can within a recently tightened budget.

He said he's directing traffic officers to emphasize bicycle-related traffic issues and tagging. Rugel said aggressive enforcement has already cut complaints about lawbreaking bicyclists at Augsburg College.

Nick Mason, director of advocacy at Penn Cycle, 710 W. Lake St., said he's trying to promote bicycle safety by pushing helmet use.

Mason said that a helmet has saved his life in a car-related crash, and people need to wear them.

"You only have to be going 7 miles per hour to be killed in a crash, and you can do that in your driveway," he said.

Mason said helmets cost $30-$150, though he sells some specialty models for close to $300. He said front and rear lights are also essential for bicycle safety and cost around $11.

Car-Bike collision culprits

1. Motorist's failure to yield (About 30 percent of accidents) How to avoid: As you approach an intersection, don't hug the curb. If you're going straight, ride about where the car's right wheel would be. Keep hands on the brake levers and watch closely. Be prepared for an emergency maneuver.

2. Cyclist's failure to yield (About 30 percent of accidents) How to avoid: Easy enough -- wait for traffic to clear. Stop for red lights and stop signs. Don't turn left unless you have checked for traffic and it is clear.

3. No lights at night (About 18 percent of accidents) How to avoid: Use proper lights.

4. Wrong-way riding (About 10 percent of accidents) How to avoid: Ride with traffic, as required by law.

5. Bikers hit from behind (About 7 percent of accidents) How to avoid: Become proficient at looking over your shoulder without swerving. Get a rearview mirror. Occasionally check traffic to the rear can help you blend better with the flow of cars, buses, trucks and other bikes.

6. Opening car doors (About 5 percent of accidents) How to avoid: Never ride closer than 3 feet from a parked car.

-- City of Minneapolis Web site

Bicycle law 101

- Bicyclists have all the rights/duties of any vehicle driver.

- Drivers passing bikes or pedestrians shall leave at least 3 feet clearance until safely past.

- It's illegal to bike on the sidewalk in a business district such as Downtown.

- When not using bike lanes, cyclists must ride on the right side of the road, with traffic. (Cyclists are not obligated to use bike lanes, by the way.)

- Cyclists should ride as close to the right curb or edge of the roadway as is practical, except when overtaking a vehicle, preparing for a left turn or to avoid unsafe conditions such as construction hazards or narrow-width lanes.

- Bikes ridden at night my have lights and reflectors.

- Cyclists must signal their turns throughout the 100 feet prior to turning, or changing lanes, and while stopped waiting to turn (unless the arm has to control the bike).

- Cyclists may ride two abreast in a single traffic lane but can't impede normal and reasonable traffic flow.

- Cyclists must yield to pedestrians on sidewalks and crosswalks and give an audible signal before overtaking.

- Only one person may ride a single bike unless it is equipped for more riders or a legal baby seat is used.

- Cyclists can't carry anything that prevents them from keeping both hands on the handlebars, or from braking.

- Bicycle size must allow safe operation; handlebars must not be above shoulder level.

- Bicycles can be parked on the sidewalk (unless locally restricted) if they do not impede normal and reasonable pedestrian and traffic flow.

-- City of Minneapolis and state transportation dept.