People Don't Have to Die on the Road

There's not much room for error in the Portland bike lane. (Photo: Doug Kerr [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)

One of my good friends was hit by a car on Friday.

He was riding his bike to work when he was hit by a pickup truck turning left at a four way intersection. The driver of the truck didn't see him and may have been talking on her cell phone. He was struck by the truck on his side and sent flying, dislocating his hip and breaking his pelvis and wrist. Luckily he wasn't far from the hospital and was quickly rushed into surgery with a great surgeon. He'll be in the hospital a few more days recovering and will be out of commission healing for a long time.

It's terrible that the the driver of the car was driving while distracted and she should be punished to the full extent of the law for her negligence, but there's a hidden culprit in this story deserving of even more of the blame- the roads themselves.

My buddy should never have been in the path of that truck. If he lived in a place like Davis, California (the city Portland, Oregon modeled their bike infrastructure after, watch this video), his wheels would not have come across the path of cars and trucks more than a few times, if at all, during his commute from home to work on physically separated bike lanes and paths. Cities like Davis don't pull their punches when it comes to supporting bicycle riders- roads for cars and bike paths are given equal play in the design of the city. When bike riders and pedestrians do share space with cars, the cars are forced, by the design of the road, to travel slowly and carefully. Their bike lanes are safe and sane- suitable for five year old children riding without training wheels for the first time.

Amsterdam is the central gem in the worlds crown jewels of bike friendly cities. In Amsterdam, it's assumed that, in the case of collisions between bicycle riders and cars, that the car driver is at fault. If the bike rider is under the age of 18, the fault automatically falls on the person driving the car, no matter the circumstances of the accident. They actually build their roads to make driving inconvenient with lots of one way streets, raised crosswalks, and low speed limits. On September 20th they even banned cars from their roads entirely.

In 1997, the Swedish Parliament introduced a bold plan call "Vision Zero" that required that all road deaths and serious injuries be cut to zero by 2020 through better design. Mark Rosenberg wrote about the policy in a great article in the Boston Globe in August, you should read it. All new roads in Sweden must be built according to Vision Zero guidelines- speed limits where bikes and pedestrians interact are capped at around 18 miles per hour, intersections have raised walkways to force cars to approach slowly, red light crossings have been replaced by traffic circles, and they've even developed an economic way to build barriers between lanes on two way roads, slashing deaths by head on collisions there by 70 to 80 percent. The death and serious injury rate on Swedish roads have plummeted since they adopted the plan. I also found a great paper on Vision Zero written by Monash University Accident Research Center analysts Claes Tingvall and Narelle Haworth that goes into even more detail on how it's done.

Somewhere out there, some nameless traffic engineer woke up today and jumped out of bed. He walked around his house getting ready for work, got in his car, and drove to the office. He doesn't know that the intersection he designed sometime years ago in Portland, Maine contributed to my friend nearly being killed on Friday. He doesn't know that my friend won't be able to jump out of his bed for months. The engineer is, of course, a product of a school of thought that's been engrained in the culture of traffic engineering since we first started driving around on four wheels. He's a cog in our old-school, car centric traffic design machine.

But still, someone should tell him about Vision Zero. Someone should tell all the traffic engineers. People don't need to die and get seriously injured on the roads.

We're smarter than this.