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Thursday, July 9, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Cyclists Must Upgrade Traffic-Safety Skills

Special To The Times

On June 14, The Seattle Times reported that a bicyclist was killed in a 1:30 a.m. hit-and-run collision with a motor vehicle that struck him from behind on Westlake Avenue North. My experiences as a bicyclist compel me to respond to this tragedy by exposing a broader medical disaster that I see on our streets even as I may risk appearing insensitive to the loss of life in this case.

My reference book, "Bicycle Transportation" by John Forester, has a section on accident statistics that shows 50 percent of cycling accidents are caused by cyclist error and only 8 percent of cycling accidents are caused by motorist error. Also, less than 1 percent of all cycling accidents involve a motor vehicle overtaking the cyclist.

Could an accident with low statistical probability be more likely where I have observed 50 percent of cyclists riding at night without lights? I called the Seattle Police Department, and Christie-Lynne Bonner responded to my questions. The cyclist had no front light, no rear light, there was no sign of a rear reflector and there was no helmet.

Without the benefit of knowledge of the accident, I assume the motorist suffers at least from a severe case of cowardice. However, it is also clear that this cyclist, as so many others, was operating his vehicle, a bicycle, illegally and less safely without the required nighttime safety equipment.

In 1992, 722 cyclists died in accidents with motor vehicles in the U.S., while 650,000 were injured in bicycle-related accidents. We have the knowledge, based on studies of traffic and cycling experience, to know how to prevent most of these accidents with the proper traffic safety behavior.

Surveys of cyclists reveal very significant factors relating to the frequency of their accidents. Cyclists who ride 500 miles a year have 7 times more accidents per mile than those who ride 3,500 miles a year. The average cyclist has four times more accidents per mile than the very few cyclists who ride in a style that is consistent with traffic rules. Education and training significantly increase the rate that cyclists learn to ride with traffic rules.

Surveys of cycling accidents by type of riding facility reveal a perhaps more-surprising result. Off-street facilities have higher accident rates, with sidewalks significantly higher, followed by unpaved facilities, then multi-use trails. Although there is a difference between off-street and on-street facilities, it is minor particularly when compared to cyclist competency. Clearly, cyclist experience, behavior, and training is decisive in reducing the unnecessarily high accident rate of the average cyclist.

Surveys of actions by bicycle enthusiasts, bicycle clubs and city bicycle programs reveal little to no emphasis on cyclist skill in using our street system. The disproportionate expenditure of money, time and actions on separated facilities leaves the training and education of adults in traffic safety behind in the dust.

Bicycle enthusiasts prepared a questionnaire for candidates in the last election cycle. There was not one question for candidates about traffic safety for cyclists and all candidates responded favorably to completion of the Urban Trails System. The recently passed Federal ISTEA bill provides $500 million for separated facilities and a paltry $500,000 for training and education that could be used for on street traffic safety. The best ratio in spending would be 1,000 to 1, hardly justifiable when we already have a street facility system but not the education and training in how to use it.

Clearly, education and training for adult cyclists in the use of our streets is very unpopular, while the promulgation of an expansive network of separated facilities is very popular. The results are an increasing number of undisciplined recreational cyclists on weekends riding on facilities without normal traffic rules and cyclists riding our streets who suffer unnecessarily high accident rates limiting the growth potential of transportational cycling. In fact, the percentage of cycling in transportation is slipping.

The best news about cycling and safety is the excellent work of our own Harborview Injury Prevention Center in its successful helmet campaign. The use of helmets by cyclists is a very efficient way to reduce the more serious injuries and deaths that result from accidents. After consulting the scientific evidence on the subject, they devised a simple strategy to solve the problem. When they discovered resistance from the public, they demonstrated persistence and ingenuity in overcoming the perceived nerd factor in wearing helmets. Today in Seattle, the majority of cyclists wearing helmets set the standard for the rest of us.

If only our cycling enthusiasts, cycling organizations and city bicycling programs could learn so much! Instead, the majority of cyclists on our streets set an unnecessarily poor standard of traffic safety. Our bicycling establishment should first survey the traffic safety compliance rate of cyclists and determine the medical consequences. They should then determine the most efficient strategy to correct the problem. Persistence and ingenuity will be necessary to overcome public resistance.

Better still, I believe, Harborview Injury Prevention Center could decide to further leverage down cyclists' injuries by combining a traffic-safety campaign with their helmet campaign to prevent the accidents. After all, they have demonstrated the ability to correctly assess a problem and overcome our resistance to its solution.

Seattle resident David Smith is a transportational cyclist of 30 years and 50,000 miles.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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