Opinion Matters

With Gazette Opinion Editor Greg Peck

Greg Peck: Staying alert to dangers while biking

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Greg Peck
Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Last week, a new UW-Madison report suggested U.S. bicycling deaths are falling but that adults still face elevated risks. This week, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that, as of Aug. 24, Wisconsin had suffered nine bicycling traffic deaths this year compared to just four at the same time a year ago.

I frequently bicycle the mile to work and back—more than 160 times already this year. A couple of years ago, I took a neighbor’s advice and started wearing a helmet on these short jaunts. I did so even though half my ride is on the sidewalk because I’ve seen most every possible danger: Someone backing out a driveway. A low-hanging tree branch. A loose dog. A driver who’s looking down one-way Court Street and doesn’t see me about to hit a crosswalk from the other direction. A driver and me arriving at an intersection simultaneously. An inconsiderate driver who thinks nothing of edging into a crosswalk at a stop sign. The driver of a parked car who might open a door just as I’m pedaling past as another car approaches me from behind, giving me little room to squeeze past.

Last week’s report by the UW-Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and Global Health Institute says fewer children are dying in accidents, perhaps because they bike less frequently but also because they use helmets more often. Though I rode hundreds of miles without a helmet as a youth—and survived two notable spills—wearing a helmet makes sense.

When I worked in Oconomowoc, I interviewed a teen who with a friend bicycled to Boston and back for fun one summer. If memory serves me right, that teen, son of a prominent resident, later attended UW-Madison and died in a fall off his bike. I can’t recall if he was wearing a helmet in that accident.

The UW-Madison study also pointed out that death rates increased significantly from 1975 to 2012 among men ages 35 to 54. That might be because more adults are commuting to jobs and bicycling for pleasure. The share of household trips taken by bicycle doubled the past 35 years. The number of bicycling commuters rose 61 percent from 2000 to 2012.

The authors advocated an integrated approach to safety that might involve better awareness, such features as separated bicycle lanes and helmet laws.

Meanwhile, Meg Jones of the Journal Sentinel reported Monday that a 50-year-old man in Germantown was killed Sunday night. Despite using a bike light around 8:15 p.m., he was struck from behind by a hit-and-run driver. This was the third Wisconsin fatality this year in which a bicyclist was hit from behind.

Robert Schneider, a UW-Milwaukee traffic safety researcher, said reviews of vehicle-bicycle crashes from 2011 to 2013 show that the driver was primarily responsible in 58 percent, while the bicyclist was primarily responsible in 24 percent. In the rest, they were equally responsible or he couldn’t determine who was most responsible.

In recent years, Wisconsin has averaged 10 bicyclist fatalities a year in roadway crashes between bikers and motor vehicles. In nine of those 10, the deaths involved males ages 46 to 65. That’s similar to the UW-Madison study.

“Everyone needs to see that traffic safety is important for the whole community,” Schneider told Jones. “We’re all out there, and we need to look out for our neighbors. It’s important for drivers to see pedestrians and bicyclists on the roadway and be careful around them.”

State law requires motorists to give bicyclists at least 3 feet of space when you pass them.

Bicyclists, in turn, must obey traffic laws—stop at stop signs, ride in the same direction as vehicles and use lights at night.

I see too many bicyclists violating these laws, and this frustrates motorists. It only builds ill will between motorists and the bicycling community.

Please play it safe. Obey traffic laws, and watch out for others on the road.


Last updated: 7:22 am Thursday, August 27, 2015

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or gpeck@gazettextra.com. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

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