Bike Safety Hits Close to Home

Glen Harrison, Safety Education Program Coordinator for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, shows the right way to fit your helmet to ensure safety on the roads. Video by Delece Smith-Barrow/
By Moira E. McLaughlin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 29, 2008

I am waiting for my husband to ask me quietly whether I might reconsider biking to work, something I have been doing for about three years. After the July 8 death of a 22-year-old cyclist in our Dupont Circle neighborhood, I wonder when his "Be careful getting to work this morning" will turn into "Think you should find another way to get to work this morning?"

I don't mind public transportation, but I like the flexibility afforded by a bike. Walking is all right, too, but I'd take my eight-minute morning bike ride over a 20-minute trek.

And I am clearly not alone. On one recent morning, I counted 10 bikers waiting for the light at 14th Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW. The Whole Foods Market on P Street in that area has two big bike racks, yet finding a space on them can be almost as hard as finding a space to park your car.

Wayne Lerch, co-owner of the Bike Rack on Q Street NW, said that since gas prices starting jumping in March, the shop has seen an approximately 20 percent increase in customers buying or refurbishing a bike for commuting or running errands. Revolution Cycles in Georgetown has already sold out of its most popular 2008 Trek commuting bikes, more than a month before expected. And Tori LaChapelle, who works at Capitol Hill Bikes, has observed an increase in business at the shop, especially from women wanting to commute by bike. "We've added [classes and workshops] outside of our normal scope to accommodate people who have come and asked about bikes," she said.

In light of the apparent increase in ridership and the recent fatal accident, I have been thinking more about safe bike riding. The scariest things about the death of Alice Swanson are that she was on a street that is generally full of traffic -- that is, a place with a predictable flow of slow-moving cars -- and that the street has a marked bike lane. R Street is not what I would have thought of as a high-risk area.

So how does a biker navigate a busy, multiple-lane avenue like Independence, Connecticut or Wisconsin?

Bike shops offer classes about D.C. bike laws (bikers are supposed to abide by the same traffic laws that apply to drivers), safety (wearing a helmet) and rider-to-rider etiquette.

I sometimes think that etiquette for urban bikers needs more emphasis. I am always surprised when another cyclist passes me without saying, "On your left." With parked cars on my right and traffic on my left, those three words can be crucial; I wouldn't want to swerve left to avoid a pothole, only to collide with a passing biker.

We bikers have to stick together, after all. The relationship between cyclists and drivers often seems like us vs. them, and many a driver has exhibited hostility toward me simply because I have two wheels rather than four. Some have even appeared to test me, driving very close as I hug the right side of the lane. I doubt that most of these people would point a loaded gun to my head, so I wonder why they want to threaten my life with their cars.

While some of the hostility seems inexplicable, there are a couple of reasons for driver frustration, including the lack of respect for the law that many bikers -- including myself -- sometimes show. I have run an occasional red light or stop sign, in part because if the traffic is clear, I feel safer getting out ahead of a line of cars, where drivers can see me. Another reason must be the slower speed drivers must maintain behind a biker. But even so, as a biker I am reducing the amount of traffic. In the long run, shouldn't that be better for drivers?

I also admit to riding on the sidewalk, which is illegal in some parts of the city. But I do that out of necessity. Even on a street with a bike lane, plenty of cars pull to the side of the road. Buses are especially hazardous, though the bus drivers on 14th Street NW seem to be aware of the cyclists in the bike lane.

My options when a car pulls into a bike lane are few. (Drivers in the District are permitted in restricted lanes if they are loading or unloading people or turning right.) I can stop and risk getting run over by a biker coming up behind me. (I have done this and angered my fellow bikers.) I can swerve into traffic to go around the car. Or, I can jump onto the sidewalk for a few seconds to avoid the street all together. To me, this last option is the best.

Bikers have to assert themselves to ensure they are seen. They also have to ride defensively and anticipate a turning car, an opening car door or a stopping bus. Strangely enough, one-way city streets seem more dangerous than two-way. From Rhode Island Avenue to S Street, biking up 15th Street NW can feel like being in the middle of a multi-lane drag race as cars try to speed through the lights.

Some of the safety advice for bikers on the Washington Area Bicyclist Association Web site starts with "watch." And that about sums it up.

Aware as I am about the risks of biking, I am always amazed to see riders without helmets. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, helmets reduce the risk of head and brain injury by 85 percent. "You'd be surprised how many people are really resistant to wearing a helmet," Lerch said. The Bike Rack shows new riders a helmet with six cracks in it -- the result of an accident that the biker survived. "If you can't convince them, they're adults and what can you do?" Lerch said. D.C. law does not require helmets for riders age 16 or older.

Despite all the potential dangers, only about 265 bicycle crashes are reported each year in the District, according to the D.C. Department of Transportation. (That's fewer than half the number of pedestrian accidents reported.) Bicycling magazine recently named Washington the most improved bicycling city in the United States. There are 34 miles of bike lanes in the District and plans for about 20 more miles by 2010, said Mike Goodno, the bicycle program specialist for DDOT. And I get the feeling that more and more drivers are growing accustomed to bikers.

So for me, the benefits of urban biking -- it's cheap and convenient -- outweigh the dangers. If only everyone could learn to share the road. With the cost of fuel and the benefits of exercise making more drivers switch to bikes, I am confident that we'll learn to relate to one another. That will mean safer drivers, safer bikers and safer roads.

At least that's what I'll tell my husband.

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