Bend bike accidents prompt deeper look at safety

Bend bike accidents prompt deeper look at safety

Credit: graphic

Bend bike accidents prompt deeper look at safety


by ERIN GOLDEN, Bend Bulletin

Posted on August 12, 2009 at 9:11 AM

Updated Thursday, Jun 10 at 1:00 PM

In Bend, more than 60 crashes involving injuries occurred between 2006 and 2008, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation. Many took place at or near intersections and were the result of drivers or bicyclists who ignored the rules of the road. A new group hopes to "get all cyclists and motorists to play by the rules."

For local bicyclists, 2008 was a particularly bad year.

At least 21 cyclists were injured in collisions with vehicles on Bend's streets, and two others were killed, the highest number of bicycle-crash fatalities in any Oregon city last year, according to statistics recently released by ODOT.

Now, members of a group formed in response to those crashes say they believe they're making progress by reaching out to the community with training sessions, informational guides and the area's first-ever Bicycle Safety Week, held in late July.

They're trying to get the word out to both drivers and cyclists and giving special attention to adult cyclists, a group they say often understands the rules of the road but doesn't always follow them.

"We don't want to be a part of the statistics, and I think that's why we're advocating so hard to level the playing field, to get all cyclists and motorists to play by the rules," said Cheryl Howard, member of the Road User Safety Task Force, the group formed last year.

"We're so passionate because we don't want to see any more fatalities," said Howard, also the chairwoman of the Deschutes County Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee.

Though Bend had two of the seven fatal bicycle crashes in Oregon last year, it ranked below other cities in the number of injury bicycle crashes.

Of the state's 10 largest cities, Bend ranked fifth in the rate of crashes per capita, according to the ODOT data, which is compiled from reports from the Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles. Corvallis and Eugene had the highest and second-highest crash rates, respectively, with Portland in third.

The number of injury crashes in Bend last year rose considerably from 2007, when the city had 16 crashes, but the 23 crashes recorded in 2008 were closer to the total in 2006, when there were 26 crashes with injuries. Bend had no fatal crashes in 2006 and one in 2007.

ODOT reports for the three-year period show crashes took place throughout the city.

A few streets, including Franklin Avenue, Greenwood Avenue, Neff Road, Olney Avenue and Reed Market Road, had two or more crashes, but most of the incidents were not concentrated in a particular area.

A majority of the injury crashes, more than 40 of the 65 reported between 2006 and 2008, involved a driver or cyclist who failed to yield the right of way. More specific information about the accidents was not available.

In about a half-dozen crashes, one of the parties failed to stop for a stop sign or flashing red light, and about the same number involved a driver or cyclist disregarding a traffic signal. Other crashes were the result of drivers going too fast, following too closely or not paying attention, among other causes.

The data from ODOT includes all DMV-reported crashes between bicycles and vehicles on streets. It is limited to crashes that resulted in injuries or deaths.

Sgt. Chris Carney with the Bend Police Department said most of the crashes he sees take place at or near intersections, but they happen for a wide variety of reasons.

"I'm not 100 percent sure why we've had so many," he said. "Some factors in there were alcohol-related, some environmental. The sun in somebody's eyes caused one crash. There's all those different factors out there."

Carney said he believes some of the crashes could be linked in a way to the economic downturn and last year's high gas prices.

"I think the other thing that's really hard to put into the equation is when the gas prices hit $4 a gallon, I think we had a lot of people on the road, bringing bikes that were really old and not well-maintained," he said. "We kind of had a newer rider on the road that wasn't as proficient as before."

Sami Fournier, a member of both the county's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee and the Road User Safety Task Force, said it's difficult to know just how many cyclists are on the road in Bend.

She said the best statistics available are taken from surveys that go along with the U.S. Census, and the most recent numbers show that 1 to 2 percent of the city's population regularly use bicycles to get around to work or school or run errands. But with so many recreational cyclists and visitors also biking in Bend, she said the numbers are likely higher than reported.

Though it might seem as if more cyclists on the roads could lead to more crashes, Fournier said it can often help make drivers more aware of bikes and less likely to get into an accident.

Fournier and Howard said they think both drivers and cyclists need to work hard to drop the rate of crashes in Bend.

But they said their organizations are paying particular attention to a group that can be hard to reach, adult cyclists who know the rules but do not to follow them.

The biggest problem, Howard said, is cyclists who don't make their patterns clear, such as those who fly past stop signs, cross the street without warning or ride the wrong way up one-way streets.

"Sometimes, you have to encourage cyclists to be predictable," Howard said. "It's difficult (for a driver) when the cyclists change gears from behaving like a pedestrian on the sidewalk to like a car on the road."

Other local drivers and cyclists said they've seen their fair share of bad behavior, even from spandex-clad riders who would appear to have spent plenty of time on the road.

"I've seen a lot of people not following the rules, even those who look like they should know better," said Connie Miller, 38, of Bend.

Keith Reid, 36, of Bend, said he rides his bike on a regular basis, mostly for fun or to get to events. He said most of the cyclists he sees are usually behaving correctly, though it can be easy to roll through a stoplight or ignore other rules when there aren't many cars on the road.

"They do (follow the rules) for the most part, but a lot of times you slack off," he said.

Zach Owen, 22, of Bend, acknowledged that there are plenty of bikers who do "stupid stuff," but said when he's riding a bike, he also has to watch out for drivers who don't want to or forget to look out for bikes.

On Thursday, he said he damaged his tire when a car pulled out in front of him on Galveston Avenue, and he had to make a sudden move over the curb and onto the sidewalk to avoid being hit.

"There's always that ignorant person who decides not to pay attention," he said.

Earlier this year, the Road User Safety Task Force printed up a flier that explains the responsibilities of both cyclists and drivers. Howard said she carries several copies in her car and has handed them out to a few cyclists she's seen making unsafe decisions.

In some cases, those bad decisions can result in a ticket or at least a warning from law enforcement officials.

Carney said he's pulled over and ticketed cyclists for unsafe and illegal behavior, though he said his primary goal is usually explaining the rules, rather than just punishing cyclists.

With his department's resources stretched thin by citywide budget cuts, Carney said patrol officers don't always have time to make cycling enforcement a priority, but they try to stop and talk to cyclists and drivers whenever they can.

"Our goal is just to change the mindset and the behavior that can lead to those crashes that gets somebody hurt," he said.

Carney said high-profile crashes like last year's two fatalities don't typically prompt a sudden crackdown on cyclists, but he said they have raised awareness about the importance of safety on the road.

The advocates said they're hoping that more cyclists on the roads and more people talking about cycling safety will help cut down on the number of accidents, but believe it will take some time.

This year, Bend has already had more than a dozen bicycle crashes, including one last month that resulted in the death of a man riding a motorized bicycle on O.B. Riley Road, according to a report from the Bend Police Department.

Fournier said she believes the city should see a real change in the number of crashes over the next few years, as children who have grown up taking bike safety classes, wearing helmets and taking other precautions grow up to be adult cyclists and drivers.

"Those kids that we train in our bicycle safety classes are right now fifth-graders, maybe 11 or 12," she said. "In four or five years, they're going to be driving, and we really expect kids who have had bike safety training in the last four years to be alert and aware of bikers in the community."