Lane Control is the Key to Bicycling Busy Streets

First published in the Coloradoan April 29, 2014

A bicyclist was heading south on College Avenue in front of Ace Hardware last week as I waited to cross to my parked car. He was far to the right, perhaps eighteen inches from the diagonally parked cars – a “crash waiting to happen” as he would have been almost invisible to a motorist backing out.

I flagged the young fellow down with a smile and told him that I was delighted to see him riding down College but I suggested that he ride in the center of the lane, not on the edge.  His immediate response was, “but that is illegal!”

League Cycling Instructor Seminar Fort Collins, August 7 - 9, 2009

A group of cyclists learning to control the lane during a League Cycling Instructor Seminar in Fort Collins in 2009. When a cyclist can demonstrate to motorists that they are predictable and know what they are doing, motorists will give him or her a wide berth.

Did he think that it was legal if he made himself as small as possible,  pretending not to be there, following the old “far to the right rule” (I wrote about this rule in the Coloradoan January 6, 2014; you can also read about it on my blog at http://tinyurl.com/farightrule)

I explained that it was perfectly legal for him to be on College Avenue but that he was safest when controlling the lane so nobody would try to pass him unsafely.  He thanked me for the advice and headed south in the middle of the lane.

There are a number of reasons you should ride the middle of the lane on College or maybe even in the left third of the lane.  I call this latter position the “left tire track.”

In the left third of the lane you are more visible to cars backing out and it is clear to drivers behind you that they aren’t going to “squeeze” by you without changing lanes.  So they’ll change lanes just as if they were confronted with a stopped motorist waiting for a parking space.

College Avenue in Old Town Fort Collins is a big parking lot.  Because of this traffic moves pretty slowly and it is easy for a bicyclist to move with the flow of traffic.  Northbound you even have a slight downhill from Mulberry or Oak Streets, an advantage for a cyclist.  At Mountain Avenue as you ride the north-bound right lane on College you will often find right-turning cars waiting for pedestrians to cross.  When that happens I will merge into the left lane and get through the next block before the stopped cars catch me.

You will ask “why would I want to ride College Avenue in Old Town?”  The answer is, maybe you have business at Ace Hardware.  Ok, admittedly you could park in back and use the back door.  But what about accessing the Bean Cycle, the Crown Pub or the Bike Co-op?  There are safe and legal ways to get to these places while riding College Avenue.

Learn lane control and the basics of vehicular cycling by joining me to ride College Avenue at 1:30 p.m. on the following days:  Thursdays May 1, 8, and 15; Fridays, May 2,9 and 16.  Meet at Mugs, corner of Laurel and Howes Streets.

Resources:  See examples of proper lane control at Commute Orlando.

Motorists’ Responsibility for Cyclists’ Safety

First published in the Coloradoan April 15, 2014

My victim’s impact statement to Judge Schapanski elicited several reader comments including one from Dr. James Glass.  Dr. Glass claimed that “we auto drivers have to take care of your cyclists because they cannot take care of themselves.” To make his point he repeated this eleven times.

Glass is correct. Cyclists do indeed use roads by the grace of motorists they share the road with.  But while Dr. Glass claims that he watches out for cyclists out of the goodness

Mountain Avenue Sharrows (Shared Lane Arrows) Installed in Old Town Fort Collins

Fort Collins Streets Engineers install “shared lane arrows” or “sharrows” on Mountain Avenue in Old Town Fort Collins in May of 2011. Mountain Avenue was the first street in town to have sharrows except for earlier tests on Laurel Street and on South College. The arrows are supposed to remind both motorists and cyclists that it is okay for cyclists to control the lane by riding in the center. Experience has shown that they don’t communicate this very well.

of his heart he has, in fact, a legal responsibility to drive carefully with the safety of other road users, especially pedestrians and cyclists, in mind.  To do otherwise would be both illegal and negligent.

This responsibility is embedded in common law under the concept of the “duty of care.”  It derives from British common law and in the U.S. is documented in the Uniform Vehicle Code, section 11-504, as follows:  a motorist has the responsibility to “exercise due care to avoid colliding with any pedestrian or any person propelling a human powered vehicle and shall give an audible signal when necessary, and shall exercise proper precaution upon observing any child or any obviously confused, incapacitated or intoxicated person.”

Colorado state law 42-4-1401 states clearly that “a person who drives a motor vehicle, bicycle, electrical assisted bicycle, or low-power scooter in such a manner as to indicate either a wanton or a willful disregard for the safety of persons or property is guilty of reckless driving.”

The Colorado Driver’s Manual further explains the responsibility of motorists to adhere to this doctrine:

“Motorists must be aware that bicyclists, like pedestrians, are more vulnerable users of the public roads and that they may change positions in the road to avoid road hazards.”  The manual explains that “inexperienced bicyclists or younger bicyclists may be” unpredictable. “Signs of an inexperienced bicyclist include: riding against traffic, riding on the sidewalk, or swerving,” and the manual asks drivers to “take extra precautions when driving around or near bicyclists displaying these behaviors.”

Cyclists also have a responsibility of exercising “duty of care” but the concept expressed above of vulnerable road users highlights the fragility of cyclists and pedestrians compared to motorists. Common sense suggests that a motorist who runs a stop sign can do far more damage to a cyclist than vice versa.

In Europe, and in a few states in the U.S., there is a movement underway to enhance protection of vulnerable road users.  The concept is, essentially, that whoever can do the most harm needs to be the most careful on the road and bear the responsibility for the damage they do.

To aid this movement the League of American Bicyclists has suggested model legislation describing vulnerable road users as almost anyone using a road legally who is not a motor vehicle.  It prohibits motorists from behaving in “a careless or distracted manner” and from causing “serious physical injury or death” to vulnerable users.  The model also suggests appropriate penalties.  Read the proposed legislation at http://www.bikeleague.org/content/model-legislation.

Thanks to James Glass for inspiring this column.

April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month: Tell your Friends

Meals on two wheels deliveries take me east on Pitkin and across Whedbee Street where the City was doing roadwork last fall.  I always stop at the stop sign on Whedbee but I especially stop when there is a twenty-four ton City dump truck lumbering down the road.  And I’m glad I stopped because the driver was on his cell phone.

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For a bicyclist a dump truck driver talking on a cell phone is like having 24 tons of unpredictable steel bearing down on you.

I thought of Erica Forney as I pedaled to pick up my meals for delivery.  Nine-year old Erica was riding her bike home from school on November 25, 2008 when a driver in a Ford Expedition glanced down at her cell phone.  She swerved just enough to knock the third grader off her bike.  Erica died of head injuries two days later.

After the dump truck incident I wrote a note to Darin Atteberry, Fort Collins’ City Manager to ask about the City’s distracted driving policy.  Indeed, after Erica’s death he had issued a directive prohibiting the use of cell phones by employees while driving City vehicles except in an emergency or in the case of emergency responders.  As far as I could tell the dump truck driver was in violation of that policy.

Another day while cycling through campus following a slow-moving CSU facilities truck I hesitated before passing the truck.  Indeed, the driver made an abrupt left turn into a parking space without signaling and I saw that he was on the phone.  I stopped and asked about the cell phone.  He said “we spend the day on the phone, it’s part of our job.”

So I called the head of CSU’s Transportation Services and he sent me the policy which reads, very clearly, that

“cell phones should not be used while driving a state owned vehicle. In cases where a call must be taken, the driver should pull to the side of the road and stop, completing the call from the side of the road.”  The policy further reminds employees that texting is illegal in Colorado.

This is a message that should be repeated regularly to everyone and especially to young people since they have less experience driving cars and often feel the need to connect by phone or through texting.  Unfortunately that group is not a big audience for this column.  So if you are a high school or college teacher and have a captive audience this week please read them the following message.  Businesses might also want to share this with their employees.

“April is distracted driving awareness month.  According to www.Distraction.gov, the official U.S. government web site for distracted driving, we killed 3,328 people in 2012 as a result of distracted driving involving cell phone use.   And 421,000 people were injured in crashes involving a distracted drivers that year.

The National Safety Council asks that you “stop using cell phones while driving, recognize that hands-free devices offer no safety benefit, understand the dangers of the cognitive distraction to the brain, and tell others about the dangers of cell phone distracted driving.”  In short, hang up and drive!

One Person’s Victim Impact Statement

(Don’t overlook the comment about this column from James Glass at the bottom of this page.)

Hit and run crimes affect entire communities of people, not just the immediate victim and family.  The following letter to Judge Stephen J. Schapanski, who is the presiding judge in the hit and run trial of Theresa Marie O’Connor, was written in the hope that the judge will thoroughly consider the appropriate penalty in this incident which killed Ernesto Wiedenbrug on January 25, 2014.

The Honorable Judge Stephen J. Schapanski

8th Judicial District Chief Judge

201 La Porte Avenue, Suite 100

Fort Collins CO 80521

Case # 14 CR 183, Theresa O’Connor

Dear Judge Schapanski:

On January 25, 2014 I became the victim of a hit and run bicycle crash when Theresa O’Connor  hit bicyclist Ernesto Wiedenbrug on SW Frontage Road just south of Kechter Road near Fort Collins.  According to the facts of the incident reported by Colorado State Trooper Ben Simpson, Ms. O’Connor fled the scene, leaving Mr. Wiedenbrug for dead.  He died later that evening at the Medical Center of the Rockies.

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The ghost bike placed on the frontage road along Interstate 25 between the Windsor exit and Kechter Road. Frontage roads are maintained by the State of Colorado Department of Transportation and CDOT does not allow roadside memorials. So the ghost bike was removed by CDOT officials about ten days after it was placed.

I wasn’t present at the scene of this incident.  And I am not related to Mr. Wiedenbrug.  I didn’t even know him.  But I am a victim of this hit and run just as any bicyclist in the region is a victim.  Hence the reason for this impact statement.

Since the spring of 2005 I have worked tirelessly to make Fort Collins a safer bicycling community.  As Safe Cycling Coordinator at the Fort Collins Bike Co-op over the last several years I have taught bicycle safety to thousands of Fort Collins school children and trained over a hundred adults how to teach bicycle safety.  And as the Smart Cycling columnist for the Fort Collins Coloradoan I have written about bicycle safety monthly for over four years.

Because of my advocacy efforts community members often come to me with questions about bicycle safety and about the best behavior for both cyclists and motorists to be safe on the road.  But since Ernesto Wiedenbrug was killed I’ve heard repeated expressions of fear from experienced cyclists.  Some of these cyclists have bicycled for decades and they are beginning to fear for their life riding in Fort Collins.

One long-time commuter cyclist wrote that “I’ve been in some scary situations, but I’ve never been ‘scared to ride’. . . [but] in Fort Collins lately I now find myself actually asking if I really want to ride anymore. . .  that is NOT right.”  Another cyclist wrote “I absolutely will not ride on city streets in Fort Collins for more than a few blocks. It is absolutely unsafe — extremely dangerous.  No amount of happy talk will change this. Fort Collins as [a] ‘Platinum’ (whatever that means) cycling spot is a bad joke.”

Since this incident parents of middle school children tell me that they won’t let their children ride their bikes to school, even in the bike lane, because it is dangerous.  Senior citizens approach me on the street and tell me that they have begun to ride only on the trails as it is too dangerous to ride on our streets.  And many, many people have told me that they prefer to ride on the sidewalk.  This last impact can lead to terrible consequences as bicycle crash rates double or triple when people ride on the sidewalk.

Your honor the entire bicycling population of Fort Collins has been traumatized and victimized by this hit and run incident.  Community efforts to teach bicycle safety have been set back years.

Respectfully,

Rick Price, Ph.D., Safe Cycling Coordinator, Fort Collins Bike Co-op

One of the comments posted in response to the above column is shown in its entirety below.  A response to the comment will appear in the Coloradoan April 15th.

Rick, PhD, I am Jim PhD, chemical engineer.

I am saddened by this death of a cyclist a the hand of an auto driver. There is no way that the driver can defend this death.

Yet, you are negating the simple fact that many of your cyclist friends have apparent death wishes and are protected by auto drivers.. I will elaborate…

I learned to ride in Los Angeles, Westwood, near UCLA, on very high-traffic streets. I quickly developed “situational awareness” to protect my life. A 200lb cyclist vs a 4000lb auto is a no-win situation, as we both can agree. Every cyclist has a personal obligation to protect his/her life.

Yet, I have encountered cyclists in Old Town on College Ave and environs that wend their way, oblivious to auto traffic; auto drivers have to protect these cyclists because they cannot protect themselves.

I have encountered many cyclists near CSU at Shields and Elizabeth that test my above thesis of cyclist vs auto frequently. Auto drivers have to protect these cyclists because they cannot protect themselves.

Your cyclists are not being injured or dead because we auto drivers are taking care of them, because many cyclists cannot take care of themselves – no situational awareness, and apparent death wishes.

I live near Horsetooth Mountain Park on County Road 38E (CR38E). CR38E is a very popular cycling road, good weather and bad, as you well know.

I cannot enumerate the number of times on CR38E that your cyclists ride after dark, without adequate lighting, in dark, non-reflective clothing. We auto drivers have to take care of your cyclists because they cannot take care of themselves. The roadside deer have more self-awareness of their personal safeties than many of your cyclist compatriots!

We auto drivers have to protect your packs of cyclists on CR38E who, I think, are reliving the Tour de France, and block the road, pull out suddenly in front of traffic, etc, without apparent regard for their lives. We auto drivers have to take care of your cyclists because they cannot take care of themselves.

I cannot enumerate the number of times that your cyclists, on the downhill eastbound on CR38E to South Bay, tucked up to minimize air resistance and maximize speed, suddenly pull out into traffic with complete disregard for their own well-beings. We auto drivers have to take care of your cyclists because they cannot take care of themselves.

Lastly, westbound on Harmony near Taft Hill , a family – mother, father, three children (with flags on their bikes), simply crossed Harmony in front of auto traffic in both directions. Auto drivers have to protect these cyclists because they cannot protect themselves.

Frankly, Rick, the primary reason that your cyclist compatriots are not being injured and killed is because we auto drivers are taking care of many of your brain-dead cyclists.

Many of your cyclist compatriots cannot comprehend the simple fact: A 200lb cyclist vs a 4000lb auto is a no-win situation, as we both can agree.

If it were not for we auto drivers taking care of your cyclists, cyclist injury and death at the hands of auto drivers might be an issue. It is not.

Your obligation is to educate your cyclist friends about THEIR RESPONSIBILITIES TO THEIR PERSONAL SAFETY while riding. We auto drivers are doing what we can to obviate your failed efforts.

It is “SHARE THE ROAD”, not “DEMAND THE ROAD”. Teach this, test this, In the meantime, we auto drivers will protect your cyclists as we always do.

The comment was posted by James Glass, apparently a retired chemical engineer who lives in rural Larimer County, Colorado.

Bicycle Safety Education Plan Needs Funding and Staffing

First published in the Coloradoan March 3, 2014

The outbreak of bike crashes calls for full funding of the city’s Bicycle Safety Education Plan.

Unfortunately, the two transportation staffers who wrote the plan are no longer with the city, and the two City Council members who requested the plan are no longer on the council. The result is a poorly implemented BSEP, even though it is ready to launch. It just needs a little funding and staffing, both of which involve little additional cost.

Mick Harte was Here Bike Safety Book by Barbara Park Should Be Required Reading for 3rd through 8th Grades

Coach Chris West, a PE teacher at Bauder Elementary School is a League Cycling Instructor and leader in teaching bicycle safety in Fort Collins schools. Chris has also visited the White House as a guest of Michelle Obama in her “Let’s Move,” campaign.

The mantra of transportation planners is “engineering, encouragement, education, enforcement and evaluation.” In other words, build infrastructure, encourage and educate users, enforce regulations and evaluate the results.

For years, our bicycle program did little more than build bike trails and lanes (engineering) and encourage people to use them. There was little enforcement or education, and the evaluations are now coming in the form of crash statistics.

Thanks in large part to budget allocations by City Council in 2012, we have an active Safe Routes to School Program, or SRTS, and city staff has begun to focus less on encouragement and more on education. But full implementation of BSEP holds the key to increased safety. To launch the BSEP, we need to reorganize FC Bikes. A good model is the educational outreach arm of our Utilities Department.

The Utilities “Community Education” division has 2.5 full-time-equivalent, or FTE, employees who work with ClimateWise and the city’s Natural Areas program to offer “classes, programs and events for community members of all ages to gain the knowledge and skills to appreciate and protect our natural resources.” FC Bikes needs a similar program.

FC Bikes currently has 2 FTE employees, while a separate FC Moves Safe Routes to School coordinator, funded at about 0.7 FTE, runs the Safe Routes to School program borrowed from Bicycle Colorado. FC Bikes teaches a full-day bicycle safety class every other month based on Traffic Skills 101 of the League of American Bicyclists.

These programs should be adapted to local needs and the adult classes should be shortened and offered more frequently. One FC Bikes employee could focus full time on outreach to adults, and the SRTS program coordinator should be full time working with schools and with the parks and recreation departments on summer bike camps.

FC Bikes and the SRTS program should be merged with two full-time employees working on education while one, the bicycle program manager, continues to work as a professional planner, helping to coordinate infrastructure improvements (“engineering”) with educational efforts throughout the city.

The new FC Bikes should focus on “education” programs and outreach to city departments, Police Services, CSU, driver education schools, local businesses and bicycle advocacy groups. The SRTS program needs to develop a strategy for teaching 11,000 fourth- through eighth-graders annually. Encouragement programs such as Bike to Work Day could be passed to local bicycle advocacy groups. FC Bikes should coordinate a bicycle ambassador program, called for in BSEP. This would increase the reach of FC Bikes in all its educational programs. Please tell City Council by writing CityLeaders@FCGov.com.

It’s time for a discussion on hit-and-run crashes involving cyclists

First published in the Fort Collins Coloradoan February 17, 2014

Hit-and-run perpetrators flee the scene of a crash because their judgment is impaired whether they are drunk, high, or just distracted.  Impaired judgment drives them to flee, adding insult to injury.   Psychologists tell us that denial is one of the most primitive defense mechanisms.  Apparently perpetrators go into shock.  They blame the victim.  And society supports them since our legal system and culture in general often blame the victim when a bicyclist or pedestrian is involved in a crash.

Ghost bike placed on the Frontage Road along I-25 in Colorado

Ghost bike placed on the Frontage Road along I-25 in Colorado

Is this, then, the answer to Daniel Duane’s question, posed in the New York Times, November 9, 2013:  “Is it O.K. to Kill Cyclists?”   Our collective denial would suggest that the answer is “yes,” most of the time.  And the data support this.

We are facing a pandemic of hit-and-run crashes in the U.S.  Most recently the plague has moved into Fort Collins with the arrest of Amanda Mae Miller, charged with hitting a cyclist and fleeing the scene on November 6, 2013 and more recently with the arrest of Theresa Marie O’Connor, charged with fleeing the scene of a fatal crash on January 25th.

Rocky Mountain PBS reported last Tuesday (Feb. 11) that in 2012, the latest year for which statistics are available, 34 people were killed in Colorado by hit-and-run drivers.  This is almost double the 18 deaths reported in 2011.  On average 17 reports of hit-and-runs are called in daily to Denver police.  In Miami-Dade County, Florida this number averaged 35 every day in 2012.  Numbers are equally shocking in most major US cities.

How can we deny this spreading curse?  How can we continue to blame the victim?  Take the case of 30-year old Raquel Nelson, a mother of three whose four-year-old son was killed by a drunk driver in a hit-and-run crash in 2010.  Nelson was crossing the road at a bus stop with her children near Marietta, Georgia when her son was killed.

Justice was literally turned upside down when the hit-and-run driver that killed Nelson’s son was initially charged with vehicular homicide but eventually served only 6 months in jail for the hit-and-run.   Nelson, however, was found guilty of vehicular homicide for jaywalking and faced up to four years in prison.  The case went to the Georgia Supreme Court, which refused to hear it.  In part because of the public outcry, the vehicular homicide charge was eventually dropped and Nelson pled guilty to jaywalking and paid a $200 fine.

In Colorado hit-and-run is a class four felony if there are serious injuries and a class three felony in the event of a fatality.  Penalties for a class 3 felony can include hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, a prison sentence of four to twelve years, lengthy probation, and revocation of the guilty party’s driver’s license.  The penalties are at the discretion of the judge in the case.

What’s the call to action here?  Don’t drink and drive, put the phone away when driving, report hit-and-runs, insist that perpetrators be prosecuted and watch for cyclists and pedestrians.