Editorials

Report on bike deaths misses chance to focus on real problems

A cyclist passes a “ghost bike” and its “companion bike” sitting chained to a light pole at the entrance to Sacramento State on J Street. The bikes mark the intersection where student Arlene Sasse, 22, was killed by a car in 2011. Sacramento ranks 26th out of 52 large cities surveyed with 5.3 fatalities a year per 10,000 bicycling commuters.
A cyclist passes a “ghost bike” and its “companion bike” sitting chained to a light pole at the entrance to Sacramento State on J Street. The bikes mark the intersection where student Arlene Sasse, 22, was killed by a car in 2011. Sacramento ranks 26th out of 52 large cities surveyed with 5.3 fatalities a year per 10,000 bicycling commuters. Sacramento Bee file

The headline about bicycle deaths in a report last week certainly grabbed our attention: “16% increase in the number of bicyclists killed in motor vehicle crashes between 2010 and 2012.” California led the list with 338 bicyclists killed during the three-year period.

The report issued by the Governors Highway Safety Association generated alarming headlines. The Los Angeles Times declared: “Bicycle traffic deaths soar; California leads nation.” The Washington Post said: “Rise in U.S. bicycle fatalities concerns safety advocates.”

Well, in the most populous state in the country with more than 38 million people, you would expect California to lead the nation in the number of bicycle deaths. The number of cycling deaths in Sacramento seems to grow each year, as passers-by can see with every sad addition of a new white ghost bike memorial.

However, a better perspective to assess the problem would be to look at the rate of fatalities for the number of cyclists and then consider what can be done to make our streets safer.

If you drive in downtown Sacramento, you’ve witnessed a phenomenal increase in the number of recreational cyclists and commuters on bikes. With more cyclists on the streets, it stands to reason there will be more fatalities, unfortunately.

The report pointed out that 100 cyclists were killed in California in 2010, 115 in 2011 and 123 in 2012, using data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System prepared by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

But with the huge increase in cyclists in Sacramento and California, the rate of fatalities per 10,000 commuter cyclists reveals a different picture. The Alliance for Biking and Walking has provided that view in its 2014 Benchmarking Report.

The Benchmarking Report, which takes data from the same Fatality Analysis Reporting System but from 2009 to 2011, ranks California 22nd among states, with 6.3 fatalities a year per 10,000 bicycling commuters. Compare the Golden State to Mississippi, which has the highest rate of 70.4 fatalities per 10,000 commuters, and the number of deaths in California doesn’t seem to be soaring.

Sacramento ranks 26th out of 52 large cities surveyed with 5.3 fatalities a year per 10,000 bicycling commuters. Fort Worth, Texas, is No. 52 with 41.9 fatalities a year per 10,000 commuters.

Even though it seems the problem isn’t as drastic as the Governors Highway Safety Association report makes it out to be, that’s no consolation for someone like Betty Ross, whose 55-year-old son Tom was struck and killed by a car in September while riding along Freeport Boulevard in a bike lane.

The death of Ross’ son came three days after a new state law took effect requiring motorists to give bicyclists a 3-foot buffer. Even with the law and the bike lane, the accident demonstrates the need for streets that are designed to safely handle increased bicycle traffic and automobiles. For a busy thoroughfare like Freeport Boulevard, a protected bike lane with some type of physical separation for cars and trucks would answer the problem.

The Governors Highway Safety Association report misled the public on the magnitude of increasing bicycle deaths and gave too much emphasis to basic safety issues like wearing helmets.

The report gave only a perfunctory nod to the need for more protective bike lanes and for ways to calm or slow down vehicle traffic, which would reduce the number of fatalities for bicyclists in Sacramento and California.

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