This week, I want to share this fantastic piece and keep myself busy reading 🙂 Enjoy it, because it’s our future…
She was doing all the right things in the morning commute, traveling in the bike lane, wearing a helmet, following the rules of the road. In an instant, Sher Kung — new mother, brilliant attorney, avid cyclist — was struck and killed by a vehicle making a turn in downtown Seattle last month.
At the scene, the truck driver wept and swore he never saw her. Mourners placed a ghost bike, painted white, at the corner. In the local law office of Perkins Coie, where Ms. Kung worked, colleagues passed by the poster in her office — “It’s a girl!” — and couldn’t believe she was gone, dead at 31.
It’s still somewhat rare for a bike rider to be killed by a motor vehicle, rare enough to wonder why. In 2012, the last year for which full numbers are available, 726 cyclists lost their lives nationwide — almost two a day. It’s far safer to fly. In that same year, there were zero fatalities from commercial airplane accidents in the United States. The death of a single cyclist has a chilling effect on everyone who pedals for work, exercise or pleasure. Can’t we get it right?
Cities are changing, quickly, to accommodate the new urban commuter. It’s not quite like the transformation from horse carriages to backfiring internal combustion engines, but a revolution is underway. Uber, Lyft and other ride services make it easy not to own a car. Bike commuting is at an all-time high in many cities.
But lanes for cyclists and signage for special routes might offer little more than the illusion of safety. The designated bike corridor on the street where Ms. Kung died, Second Avenue, is known as the Lane of Death for all the accidents. She was struck down just days before a new signal system was put in place.
Her death made me shiver. It still does. I lost a friend on a bike to a car, and I’ve seen others crushed in terrible accidents. Once, after snagging a wheel in an old streetcar track, I was thrown across the pavement like dice on a craps table. Still, I love to ride. I love to daydream when I ride. I used to love to pretend I was Lance Armstrong in the Pyrenees, until he was proven a pathological liar and cheat. But I’m my own worst enemy, because every cyclist must assume that every car driver could kill them. And you should never daydream.
Last year, Daniel Duane caused a stir in these pages when he wrote a piece titled, “Is it O.K. to Kill Cyclists?” His point was that in most bike-vehicle deaths, the driver gets off with a minor traffic citation, a mere inconvenience.
Harsher penalties may deter some accidents, but I doubt it. It’s better to learn from places with long biking traditions, and to change the way we think about the road when on the road. In the Netherlands, deaths per total number of miles cycled are much lower. This is attributed to educated bike riders, who stay in the lanes, signal properly and obey traffic signals. In turn, drivers learn to look for cyclists who may be just out of mirror range.
When I drive my car, I get mad at cyclists who weave in and out of traffic, won’t move over, never stop at a red light and flip me off when I come within eye contact of them — the self-righteous bastards. When I ride my bike, I hate all those people in cars, some of whom are texting while driving — far worse than driving drunk, as my colleague Matt Richtel documents in his new book, “A Deadly Wandering.” If each side could just think a little more like the other side, it would go a long way toward improved safety.
In California, after 153 cyclists were killed in collisions in 2012, the state tried to do something about it. This week a new law took effect — the Three Feet for Safety Act. It mandates a yard-long cushion between autos and cyclists, with fines for violators. It’s a start, born of good intentions, but best of luck enforcing that.
Seattle has a bike master plan, and bike lanes all over the city. The last mayor was bike-crazed, prompting many to complain about a “war on cars.” None of that prevented the kind of collision that took the life of Sher Kung one bright summer morning.
The thing to do is to realize how vulnerable you are whenever two wheels try to share a road meant for four wheels. A bike rider is flesh, bones, tendons and skin against a two-ton S.U.V. What would be a fender-bender, scrap or brush between cars can be fatal to a cyclist. As glorious as it is have the wind in your face, to be gliding along on your own power, it can all change in a flash. Getting on a bike in the city is an act of faith in a flawed urban contract, and in beating the odds.