In a normal year in the Portland area, one to two bicyclists die in riding-related accidents.
But in the past two months alone, four bicyclists from the Portland area have been killed in bike accidents, three involving automobile collisions. A fifth bicyclist died after being struck by a car in Sherwood.
Why the upswing in bicycling deaths?
“It’s hard to know why four people have died on the streets this summer so far. With such small numbers, it’s hard to draw conclusions about cause and effect,” said Scott Bricker, director of policy and education for the Bicycle Transportation Alliance.
Traffic problems and interactions with automobiles are a major problem Bricker said. “Automobiles run red lights, turn illegally and change lanes without signaling. It’s critical that all vehicle users – bicycles and automobiles – know that they have an equal right to be there and that they must share the road,” Bricker said.
Many serious accidents do not appear in the media because they don’t involve fatalities, said Jonathan Maus, spokesperson for Shift to Bikes, a bicycle advocacy group.
Portland has twice been rated the “best bicycling city in the United States” by Bicycling Magazine, a fact that leaves bicycle advocates puzzled about the recent deaths. “In reality, bicycling is still a safe way to get around,” Maus said. “As bicycling has increased in Portland, bicycle crash rates and death rates have actually gone down.”
“People from all over the United States are attracted to Portland for its bicycling and bike culture,” Bricker said.
“The irony is that so many of these bad accidents are happening in Portland,” Maus said.
In the last 20 years, bike ridership in the Portland area has tripled, yet the number of bike accidents has stayed about the same. A spring 2005 student transportation survey found that about 6 percent of Portland State students bicycle to and from school, a three-fold increase over the last 10 years.
Certain streets and intersections around Portland have a reputation for being especially hazardous. Southwest Broadway, which passes by Portland State, is one of these.
“Broadway is a very popular bike route – it goes all the way from the Broadway Bridge to PSU. It’s a busy street with a lot of turning traffic: parking garages, hotels, loading zones, taxicabs, everything,” Bricker said. “Bicyclists who use Broadway have to be careful to make sure they don’t get pinched into the bike lane. They have to watch for vehicles turning or pulling out of a parking place, doors opening into the bike lane, that sort of thing.”
According to Bricker, the bike lane on Broadway isn’t always a safe place to ride. But Senate Bill 938 – passed during the recent legislative session – will provide some relief.
It is currently illegal to leave the bike lane if one is present, Bricker explained. But as of January 1, 2006, SB 938 will allow bicyclists to leave the bike lane and move into the street when the bike lane becomes hazardous.
“This will be a big help for busy streets like Broadway,” Bricker said.
According to the Oregon Department of Transportation, most bike accidents happen in the summer, and most often between 3-9 p.m.
“There are lots more people riding in summer, and also more riding at night. In the winter it’s dark at 5 p.m.,” Bricker said. “People who are out riding in the winter tend to have lights on their bikes and are well equipped. In summer people are much more casual about riding. They don’t tend to have the same amount of equipment.”
“A lot of cyclists aren’t used to city riding,” added Maus. “They ride timid – they try to stay close to the curb, and do a lot of swerving to get out of the way of traffic. A safer way to ride is to ride defensively. You can’t be afraid to take up a lane – that’s how you compete in the jungle of cars. They can see you better that way, too.”
“Bicycling is unique in that you’ll find a large cross section of types of people and skill levels,” said Bricker. “It has a very low entry point. You can pull an old bike out of the shed where it’s been for 30 years, get on and start pedaling. On the other end, you have people with top-of-the-line bikes who have ridden every day for 30 years.”
Head injuries remain the leading cause of death in bike crashes, with seven times more males being killed than females. Some 70 percent of bicycle deaths affect riders older than 16.
The simple act of wearing a helmet can reduce the risk of serious head injury and death by as much as 85 percent. While Oregon has helmet laws for youth, those over 16 are left to decide whether or not to wear a helmet.
The BTA mission is to advocate on behalf of cyclists. The organization provides education, promotion of bicycling and improvement of bike-related facilities. In the face of the recent bike-related deaths, the organization has advised ongoing vigilance.
“We have 4000 members. We’re not specifically telling people that this is a dangerous year, but we’re reminding them to stay safe, follow rules, be careful and use [bicycle] lights at night,” said Bricker.
Shift to Bikes works to express Portland’s creative bike culture and to highlight positive contributions of bicycling to the community. One of its main ongoing interventions is the organization of group bike rides around the Portland area during the year.
“We’re trying to increase everyone’s awareness,” said Maus. “We want cars to realize that they’re sharing the road with bicycles, and the best way to increase bicycle visibility is to get more bikes out on the road.”
“Bicyclists are vehicles,” said Bricker. “They have a right to be there. We expect bicyclists to follow the rules of road, and we hope motor vehicles will, too.”