Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Drivers: The Real Issue in Bike Safety

Unbelievable! Another cyclist hit and killed in Indianapolis -- and this one by a Marion County Sheriff's Department van! One would normally say "what will it take for drivers to start being aware of cyclists on our roads and giving them a little extra space?" Two deaths should be enough. Below a post I actually wrote on Sunday:

Everyone's been talking about the tragic death of 48-year-old cyclist Sharon Wollam, who was hit and killed by a car after she fell from her bike a couple of weeks ago. Tragically, Sharon didn't just fall from her bike, but she fell from her bike in the crosswalk at 91st and the Monon Trail where she was struck by the car while she was down. There was news coverage at the time; there are flowers by the Monon Trail where she fell; and the weekend Sunday Star has a front page story on cyclist safety in Indiana. The questions are raised by legislators and cyclists alike -- and the answers all seem to be related to throwing money at the problem. New bike trails, new bike lanes, new equipment -- those seem to be the only solutions.

There's no question that Wollam's death was a horrible accident and that new bike lanes will help save lives, but no one seems to be discussing the real issue at hand, the issue everyone who's walked or ridden a bike in Indy has had to deal with it, and the one issue everyone seems to want to ignore: the driver failed to stop at the crosswalk.

Last I checked (and I checked pretty recently because I had to retake my written driver's test after letting my drivers license expire), it was the law in Indiana that operators of motor vehicles must stop for pedestrians and other folks in the crosswalk. On Meridian Street every day, I watch people struggle to cross at crosswalks. No one stops, not even law enforcement vehicles. It's impossible to cross -- and forget trying to cross at night. Today, I saw a bus driver speed up, gunning his bus to cross ahead of people in a crosswalk.

Using crosswalks for The Monon Trail north of 86th Street is no better. South of 86th street, drivers seem more cautious, I suspect because many of them use the trails themselves. Some of those trail entrances and crossings make it tough to see a rollerblader or runner or cyclist if you're not careful. But in Carmel -- watch out! Crossing the Monon Trail at at Carmel Drive is like taking your life into your own hands. Sadly, most drivers in Carmel seem to view the Monon Trail and its users as an inconvenience.

Most people who use the Monon Trail know the drill. When you get to a street, you stop, you wait to see if the car will stop, and you make eye-contact with the driver if possible to make sure they see you. Then you start across when it looks like they're stopping. If you're a driver, you do the same things. If you're biking or rollerblading, you pray you don't fall. Sharon fell. And on 91st street there's a little hill when you're traveling westbound so you can't see the crosswalk at the top, and when it's dusk or sunset, or even dark, it can be hard to see with shadows, and sometimes the sun in your eyes. And yes, a lot of people do use the Monon Trail after dark. Right or wrong, a driver is still responsible for seeing someone in a crosswalk.

I can't question what this particular driver was thinking, what they saw, or didn't see, or when they stopped. But while Sharon's particular accident was just that, what happens the next time someone on Carmel Drive doesn't stop for a rollerblader or cyclist or mom with a stroller? I've seen police cars blow through those crossings, so how can we know we're safe if everyone is busy talking about new bike lanes? Let's address the issue we know can be fixed -- enforcing crosswalk safety and getting serious about protecting the users on trails we already have. Until we address the real problems, there's no use spending money to create new ones.

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