Safety lessons give cyclists a better chance on Austin streets
Monday, August 07, 2006
When a 30-pound bike meets a 3,300-pound car, it doesn't matter who caused the collision. The car will always win.
I ride my bike in traffic all the time. I commute to work 8 miles each way once a week. I ride around town on weekends. I just got back from the Northwest, where I rode 202 miles from Seattle to Portland.
With so much car-bike mingling in my life, I decided to bolster my chances of avoiding a crash. I signed up for StreetCycling's basic driver's ed course for adult cyclists. Then I twisted my husband's arm until he signed up, too.
I'm glad I did.
Between 700 and 800 bicyclists a year are killed in crashes with motor vehicles, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Another 45,000 or so are injured.
In April, Gay Simmons-Posey was killed by a hit-and-run driver while training on Capital of Texas Highway (Loop 360) for a charity bike ride. Three cyclists were killed in 2005 and one in 2004, said Laura Albrecht, spokeswoman for the Austin Police Department. On average, the city records two bicyclist deaths a year, typical for a city this size.
Some deaths are caused by motorists, some by cyclists. About half occur when motorists are turning and run into cyclists, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Almost all auto-cyclist crashes can be avoided, says Preston Tyree, who's been teaching the StreetCycling course for 10 years.
"It really isn't dangerous out there if you do it right," says Tyree, chairman of the education committee for League of American Bicyclists, which sanctions the StreetCycling class. About 100 people a year take the course in Austin. Nationwide, about 2,500 people a year take a similar class.
Riding Austin streets
It's Friday night and we're in a meeting room at REI, nibbling a brown-bag dinner while brushing up on our basic cycling knowledge and watching videos of cyclists nearly getting hit by cars.
We yawn a bit during the first part of class, which includes a review of bike parts and basic bike maintenance. But I snap to attention when we get to the part about riding in traffic. Sometimes it takes nerves of steel to maneuver Austin's streets. To ride safely, you've got to be assertive.
Austin's car-bike fatalities have occurred all over the city, not in one particular place. The causes were varied, too: Simmons-Posey was clipped while crossing the Bee Cave Road exit lane off Loop 360. One cyclist was struck by a drunken driver on West Sixth Street. One ran a stop sign in a residential neighborhood in Southeast Austin. Another, who was wearing headphones, collided with a cement truck on South Congress Avenue.
Tyree says he avoids some high-speed streets simply because if you collide with a car, the probability of death is high. "Even though I do ride on the access road of U.S. Highway 183, I don't necessarily like it it's 45 mph traffic," he says. "It's like Loop 360 it's not for novices."
By comparison, riding downtown is simple. "I have no fear downtown," Tyree says. "But you don't go out there without knowledge. You go out there being aware that, yeah, it can be deadly if I do something stupid. But if I pay attention and operate predictably, the probability that something's going to happen is very low."
Tyree, who rides almost daily, says Austin ranks somewhere in the middle as far as bike friendliness. "Austin's much more cyclist friendly than San Antonio, for example. But it's far less so than Portland. . . . In Texas, we kill one cyclist a week on average. To keep it in perspective, we kill 70 motorists a week."
In class, Tyree gives us the basics: Under the Texas Transportation Code, cyclists have the same rights and duties as motor-vehicle operators.
The code specifies that bicyclists ride as near as practicable to the right curb or edge of a roadway. That doesn't mean bikers have to roll through gravel or broken glass on the side of the street. They can move farther to the left to pass other vehicles, when preparing to turn left, or if the condition of the roadway makes it unsafe to ride farther to the right. And if the lane is too narrow for a bike and motor vehicle to travel side by side 14 feet or less they should ride in the center of the lane.
Hear that, all motorists out there who think cyclists should not occupy a lane?
"The middle of the lane may be the safest place to be, and the law says you should take the lane in certain situations," Tyree says.
As for riding on city streets, cyclists in most cases simply act like cars. They yield to crossing traffic, they yield when changing lanes and they position themselves in the lanes according to where they are traveling.
"Ride in the right-most lane that goes in your destination," Tyree says. That last bit is important. Sometimes cyclists mistakenly get in a right-turn-only lane when they plan to cross an intersection.
And he reminds us of something else cyclists seem to forget: If it gets too crazy out there, stop and get off. "It's OK to get off your bike and cross the street on foot," Tyree says. "You are in charge of your own safety."
Before we adjourn for the night, we discuss more safety issues:
Cyclists should wear a helmet with or without a law that fits right. It should be snug, with no more than two finger widths of forehead showing, not tipped way back on your head.
Try to make yourself visible. Wear something bright (studies show that reflective and Day-Glo yellow materials are most visible). At night, cyclists by law must carry a white light in front and a red light or reflector in back. Consider getting a tiny rear-view mirror that attaches to your helmet.
And if you want to really impress your friends, get what Tyree has a lightweight Day-Glo yellow vest imbedded with tiny flashing red lights.
Alert and friendly
The next morning, Tyree takes us on the road for five hours of wheels-down instruction.
"I can give you all the rules in the book, but as soon as you get out there with cars, you start all over," he says.
Before we roll away from Cafe Mundi on East Fifth Street, he warns us that he once flunked a student who tapped on the car window of a motorist who'd done something wrong and called him an idiot.
Our plan: Be visible, be alert, be predictable and be assertive. We'll use hand signals (left arm straight out for a left turn, left arm down and open for slowing or stopping, left arm up at a 90 degree angle or right arm straight out for a right turn) to let drivers know what we're doing. We'll make eye contact with drivers. We'll be courteous.
"You've got to be aware all the time. You can't zone out," Tyree says. "It's like being a fighter pilot you have to be alert, looking around."
He reminds us to ride at least 4 feet out from the curb, and out of the way of the side mirrors of parked cars. That way, if a car door swings open unexpectedly, we won't smack it.
With that, we roll about a mile to a nearby school parking lot, where Tyree arranges a bunch of tennis balls that have been cut in half. For the next hour, we practice stopping our bikes on a dime, dodging around "rocks" and executing instant turns, designed to save our lives if a car cuts in front of us. (This is harder than it sounds, and requires great trust in your bike.)
We also practice scanning, riding in a straight line while we swivel our heads back to check traffic. Besides giving us a clear view of what is going on in the road behind us, it lets drivers know we're about to do something like change lanes. But it's tricky to keep a perfectly straight line and scan.
"Pretend there's an 18-wheeler on one side of you and a ditch on the other," Tyree says. Suddenly it gets easier.
Done with our parking-lot skills, we pedal underneath Interstate 35, making our way west on Sixth Street, up around the Capitol, south on Congress Avenue, then over to Whole Foods. At one point, we work our way across three lanes of traffic and turn from Sixth Street onto Guadalupe Street. We negotiate turn-only lanes. We scan like pros. We cross railroad tracks at right angles to avoid letting our front tires slip into those treacherous crevices.
At the end, we demonstrate our prowess at changing a rear tire, and take a written test.
"It's amazing what you think you know and then you get out there and see what you don't," student Carla Jennings says as we eat waffles and sandwiches at a coffee shop at the end of our ride.
Tipping the odds
When I rode my bike to work Tuesday, I felt a little more confident as I zipped along Shoal Creek Boulevard. I signaled my intentions and constantly scanned. I was assertive and I followed the law.
I know I still take a risk by getting out in traffic on my bike, but I think I've lowered the odds of an accident. You should, too.
April 17, 2006 12:30 p.m., Capital of Texas Highway (Loop 360) at Bee Cave Road, Gay Simmons-Posey, 40
Sept. 22, 2005 7:57 a.m., East St. Elmo Road at South Congress Avenue, Austin Weirup, 16
Aug. 11, 2005 2:59 a.m., 1400 block of West Sixth Street, John Smythe, 35
May 29, 2005 3:22 p.m., 5100 block of Ledesma Road, Mercedes Ann Cervantes, 13
Number of cyclists seriously injured in collisions with motor vehicles in Austin:
2006 5 (seven months)
Bicyclists' ed: For more information on StreetCycling's education classes for bicyclists, go to www.streetcycling.org. The Adult I class costs $65 and includes four hours of classroom study and five hours of on-road training.