Saturday, February 12, 2011

Tracking bike accidents in San Francisco

Last week Bay City made a contribution to safe cycling on city streets with a story and, more importantly, a data application that allows city cyclists to report their own accidents:

There were more bikers than ever on the streets of San Francisco in 2010. Bike lanes were being installed once again after the city won a long-fought legal battle. Innovations like separated bike lanes on Market Street, the city’s most-traveled street, are making the bike commute less harrowing. But last year also saw several horrific accidents. Nils Linke, a 21-year-old German tourist, was hit and killed by a drunk driver on Masonic Avenue.

The pseudo-objective style of the story falls short here, since Linke was hit and killed by a drunk driver late at night, and he died from "blunt force injuries to the head" because he wasn't wearing a helmet:

Perhaps most surprising, the San Francisco Police Department lists just one bike accident in the last two years that was primarily caused by drunk driving: the
tragic death of a German cyclist, Nils Linke, on Masonic Avenue near Turk Street. (Linke's death has raised the volume on calls to redesign Masonic).

Yes, some of the bike people have shamelessly used Linke's death as part of their ongoing campaign to screw up traffic on Masonic---a street that carries more than 32,000 vehicles a day---on behalf of the city's cyclists, even though the accident had nothing to do with that street's design. The story doesn't make that obvious observation, but it does link Michael Helquist's Bike Nopa blog, which has indeed shamefully exploited Linke's death, posting a series of misleading items on the accident.

In fact very few cyclists die in accidents on city streets. On average only 1.8 cyclists a year had fatal accidents in SF between 1998 and 2008, according to the "City of San Francisco 2008 Bicycle Collision Report of February 2010."

In the absence of a coherent city policy, cycling accidents have always been underreported, which was noted way back in 2005 in the Bicycle Plan that was the subject of the CEQA litigation: "The SFPD has improved their reporting of bicycle collisions significantly over the past years, yet there continues to be an under reporting of bicycle related collisions" (page 6-4, Framework Document). Yet when I write on this blog that riding a bike has certain inherent dangers, I get furious comments from cyclists.

The Citizen story notes that some city cops are apparently reluctant to make accident reports on bike accidents unless an ambulance is called, though that apparently contradicts the SFPD's policy. Surely reports should be made on these accidents, since injuries aren't always apparent right away, and, at the very least, the reports would help the city track such accidents.

The city's bike movement struggles with this contradiction: they promote cycling by insisting that it's a safe way to get around, while complaining about the dangers---potholes, train tracks, a lack of bike lanes, those devilish motor vehicles and their drivers, etc.---and push the city to do more to make riding a bike in the city safer.

As a special interest group, the Bicycle Coalition naturally encourages everyone to ride bikes in SF, even though one of its own surveys found that "27% of respondents say they have been in a collision with a car, truck, or bus while riding a bicycle in the past two years in San Francisco."

That makes it particularly irresponsible for the Bicycle Coalition and the city to encourage children to ride bikes on city streets with the Safe Routes to School program, since riding bikes evidently isn't safe even for adults.

The Bicycle Coalition also provides some obtuse, ambiguous advice to parents about helmets for their children:

In recent years helmets have been oversold as safety devices to the point that many parents believe that wearing one is sufficient protection for any bike crash. This is not so. Most deaths come from being hit by a car, the situation in which a helmet is least likely to be effective.

But it's head injuries not death that parents have to fear most when their children ride bikes:

According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS), the most recent statistics indicate that there were an estimated 64,500 bicycling-related head injuries treated in United States hospital emergency rooms in 2005. Nearly 37,000 of these injuries were to children age 14 and younger. For all sports, there were an estimated 309,000 head injuries treated in the same year.

And Safe Kids USA tells us that "Universal use of bicycle helmets by children ages 4 to 15 could prevent between 135 and 155 deaths, between 39,000 and 45,000 head injuries, and between 18,000 and 55,000 scalp and face injuries annually." Unfortunately, the same organization tells us that "National estimates report that bicycle helmet use among child bicyclists ranges from 15 percent to 25 percent."

The Bicycle Coalition shouldn't be giving parents mixed messages about the importance of bicycle helmets for their children, but then Andy Thornley, the organization's long-time Program Director, sets a bad example since he doesn't wear a helmet when he rides in the city:

Here's my own personal position: I choose not to wear a helmet while bicycling in San Francisco because I'm very mindful of how I look and don't want to give anyone the wrong impression about how safe it is to ride a bicycle in San Francisco. I'm too busy working to diminish danger in the streets to spend any of my limited time and energy constructing fear.

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