Many experienced cyclists have stories about collisions or close calls with pedestrians – the jaywalker with the iPod who appeared out of nowhere, the woman on the cell phone who stepped into a crosswalk without looking, the heedless child darting into the street or the pet on a long leash that sent the cyclist over the handlebars.
But despite the abundance of anecdotal evidence and heated complaints on internet bike forums, the official data on collisions between cyclists and pedestrians is scant. That is because these kinds of accidents often go unreported.
“We don’t have really good statistics on crashes between bikes and pedestrians,” said Greg Raisman, traffic safety specialist for the Community and School Traffic Safety Partnership in the Portland Office of Transportation. “There have been a couple of high-profile cases, but we get our statistics from [the Oregon Department of Transportation], which they compile from the DMV. Most DMV reports are self-reported. We encourage people to self-report, but bike-pedestrian crashes are way underreported.”
Every year, a handful of people are killed in bicycle-on-pedestrian collisions. A 71-year-old Corvallis woman died in September when a cyclist failed to stop at a crosswalk. Although it was after dark, witnesses said the intersection was well lit. The cyclist, who stopped to help the woman and called for help, has been charged with manslaughter and reckless driving.
Most accidents between pedestrians and cyclists, however, are non-fatal and both walker and rider limp away with minor injuries. Because the damage is usually significantly less than a collision with a motor vehicle, both cyclists and pedestrians are unlikely to report these run-ins to the authorities.
According to the Oregon Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan, “most cycling crashes (65-85 percent) do not involve collisions with motor vehicles; they usually involve falls or collisions with stationary objects, other cyclists and pedestrians.”
Collisions with animals and pedestrians account for between 3 and 9 percent of urban bicycle crashes, according to 1996 studies conducted at the University of Washington.
“We rank crashes by five levels of severity,” Raisman said. “As these kind of [bike-on-pedestrian] crashes become more severe, the likeliness of reporting increases, so we find out about the worst problems first.” This makes it difficult to gauge how many cyclist-pedestrian collisions take place, and how much injury a typical collision causes.
While there are some independent web sites, such as BikePortland.org and GhostCycle.org, that encourage cyclists to self-report collisions and near misses, Raisman is skeptical about the validity of that kind of data collection. “If you look at the statistics for adult cyclists in collisions with motor vehicles, whether the cyclist or the driver is at fault is about 50-50. However, if you look at the self-reported figures from GhostCycle, 94 percent say the motorists are at fault.”
“The good news is, these kind of crashes usually aren’t fatal,” said Evan Manvel, executive director of Portland’s Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA). “The bad news is, cyclists and pedestrians are often stuck in the same space, and it doesn’t always work well.”
According Raisman, Portland bases its transportation safety planning on the “Three E’s,” which are education, engineering, and enforcement.
“As road users, we all share the responsibility,” Raisman said. “Cyclists need to know that when a pedestrian is crossing the street, the bike is a vehicle. It’s important to stop for pedestrians, and give them the right of way. And pedestrians need to look for bikes like any other vehicle, and give them adequate space to stop before crossing the crosswalk.”
As for engineering, Raisman said the creation and maintenance of separate spaces for pedestrians and cyclists is key.
“Riding a bike on the sidewalk downtown is illegal, and cyclists can get a citation for it,” he said. “Not only do cyclists put pedestrians in danger by riding on the sidewalk, they are also more likely to be hit by cars. If you are riding a bike on the sidewalk, cars pulling out of driveways or at intersections can’t see you, and you may be moving too fast.” Portland has one of the most extensive networks of bike trails, bike lanes and shared roadways in the nation.
When riding on the sidewalk, cyclists should move slowly and are required by law to verbally alert pedestrians when passing them from behind.
The city is increasing its efforts to treat cyclists as vehicle operators, entitled to the same rights and subject to the same rules of the road as motorists.
“We write 130,000 citations a year, 600 of which are issued to cyclists. Of those, half are issued by the Tri-Met transit police. For everyone’s safety, bicyclists’ too, we’re stepping up enforcement. We want to put out the word that cyclists must obey the law,” said Bill Sinnott, commander of Portland’s Police Traffic Bureau.
According to Sinnott, these enforcement actions focus on intersections and the bridges “where everyone comes together, including motorists, cyclists and pedestrians.” Much of this heightened enforcement will take place during rush hour.
“Pedestrians and bicyclists are ongoing partners. Our interests are the same,” Manvel said. “We need to work well together and be aware of each other. We’re both vulnerable users.”
Michael Dennis, president of the Willamette Pedestrian Coalition, concurred. “We’re working with the BTA to encourage more bike lanes and bike streets to minimize the conflicts.”