Okay, I’m no crybaby, but this is the second time that a bicycle ride through Washington, DC has left me in tears. It was nothing, really. A car sped past me through a light (even though he was in a right turn lane) and nearly edged me into oncoming traffic in his hurry to squeeze into my lane. Maybe that sounds like a big deal to those of you who live in other parts of the country, but for those of us who cycle in DC, it is–sadly–an everyday occurrence. I guess the part that really got to me was when I glanced over at the driver. He was glaring at me, as if I had violated his god-given right to change lanes at will. He wasn’t thinking about my safety–or his, for that matter–and he certainly wasn’t thinking about traffic laws. Not prepared to get into a fight with several tons of metal, I slowed down. He crossed into my lane and sped away without even looking back.
Just when I thought I was safe, two pedestrians decided it was a good idea to amble down the street in the bicycle lane, even though there was a sidewalk was a few feet to their right. I slowed down, but passed close enough to make them both jump. I’m happy to say that I also yelled several loud words, including GET, OUT, OF, THE, BICYCLE, and LANE, possibly followed with one more not very nice word. But had I not still been shaking from my earlier encounter with the car, I would have pulled over and had the following conversation with them:
Me: “Excuse me, I’m really sorry I scared you just then. Did you know that you’re walking in the bicycle lane?”
Pedestrians: “Oh, we didn’t realize.”
Me: “That’s all right- I just wanted to stop and explain to you what a huge safety risk it is for all three of us. It’s dark out, you’re around a corner on this road with low visibility, and if I hadn’t seen you in time all three of us could be in the hospital right now.”
At this point in my imagined conversation, the pedestrians react with understanding and gratitude, thanking me for taking the time to make the DC streets a safer place. I’d like to say that this conversation could happen in real life, but in real life it would probably just be cut short early with a hearty “Fuck you!” from one of them. (My imaginary conversation with the motorist is much shorter, consisting of a few well-chosen four letter words.)
But there’s no use crying over unenforced traffic laws. I’ve been contemplating this post for several months now, and now I think it’s time to write it.
Bungee jumpers, skydivers, and shark cage divers of the world, I challenge you to partake in the ultimate adrenaline rush: riding a bicycle in DC. The only difference between skydiving and cycling in this city is in the statistics. Skydiving is safer by far. Don’t believe me? What about the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department? So far this month (and remember, we’re only on the third day) nine people have been struck by cars. And this is just the alerts they’ve had time to post on Twitter during working hours. As of August, there had been ten pedestrian fatalities this year, with an average of 8-10 pedestrians and cyclists struck every day. Check out this neat map of accidents in the month of July alone, compiled by DCist.com:
View D.C. Pedestrian/Cycling Accidents – July 2010 in a larger map
A recent Washington Post article describes seven Washington area pedestrian accidents, including three deaths, in less than a week. Here’s a great excerpt from a related article about these incidents:
Although overall roadway fatalities have declined to their lowest level since 1950, the number of pedestrian-car fatalities has inched down stubbornly. Nationally, the fatality count dropped last year by 322, to 4,092. In the Washington region, it declined by one to 85.
Here’s a brief article (if you can even call it an article) about a woman who was killed by a car in southwest DC:
Pedestrian dies in morning accident in D.C.
D.C. Police are investigating a fatal pedestrian accident in Southeast Washington. The pedestrian was struck around 10:30 am at First and M Streets SE, according to authorities. Emergency workers arriving on the scene found that the person had died, according to D.C. Fire/EMS officials. No further details were immediately available.
Now check out some of the comments from readers:
“You should always look both ways before crossing the street in DC. And always cross in a marked crosswalk. Not giving full time and attention and not being in the marked crosswalk contributed to her death … We are sorry for your loss.”
“Not saying this is the situation in this case, but people walk in front of moving cars in DC as if they are invulnerable, they dare you to hit them.”
A later commenter finally points out the obvious:
“Are there any more details on this? Everyone seems to assume that she wasn’t paying attention, but could it be that she WAS walking on green, and perhaps someone turned into her, etc?”
Now that I’ve served up these very sobering statistics and articles,1 how about a side of anecdotal evidence? I don’t know anyone who cycles in DC and hasn’t been involved in an accident with a car at least once. I’ve had drivers speed past me with only a foot or two of space between us, leaning on their horns the whole time. Others have run stop signs or tailgated me for blocks, honking and flashing their lights. Just a few weeks ago, a colleague of mine was struck by a car while crossing an intersection. She had a green light. She (or rather, the car that hit her) broke several ribs, fractured her arm, and injured her hip. There were many other major and minor injuries. She doesn’t have feeling in one of her hands. In addition to the cast, sling, brace, and special orthopedic shoes, she’s still waiting to find out if she needs to have surgery. But if she hadn’t been wearing her helmet, she probably would have died. Her bike is gone, her helmet is cracked, and the only souvenir she has from her accident is the traffic violation ticket a policeman thoughtfully left with her on the stretcher. This is not an uncommon story.
I’m a very cautious, almost paranoid cyclist, but can’t shake the feeling that it could be my any day now.2 In most places, it’s enough to wear a helmet and reflectors, turn on rear and front flashing lights, signal at turns, stop at signs, and use designated bicycle lanes.3 In Washington, DC it’s not enough.
All this is not to say that bicyclists and pedestrians are without fault.4 Many cyclists run red lights and stop signs, speed on crowded sidewalks, fail to signal when making turns or changing lanes, or even carry on phone conversations while biking (yikes!). Many pedestrians walk out into the street without looking both ways. Even more pedestrians walk into the street without checking to see if they have the walk signal. Just like motorists’ bad behavior, these things can be life-endangering.
DC cyclists, know your laws!
- Ride with the flow of traffic on the right half of the roadway.
- A person driving a motor vehicle shall exercise due care by leaving a safe distance, but in no case less than 3 feet, when overtaking and passing a bicycle.
- Allowed to pass motor vehicles on left or right, in the same lane or changing lanes, or pass off road.
- No person shall open any door of a vehicle unless it is safe to do so and can be done without interfering with moving traffic.
- Use of bike lanes and paths is not mandatory, but motor vehicles may not obstruct bike lanes!
- Cyclists are required to have a bell or other device. Sirens are prohibited.
- After dark, cyclists are required to have a front white light and rear red reflector (or rear red light), may be attached to operator.
- Helmets are required under the age of 16.5
- Motorists do not automatically have the right of way. Neither do cyclists.
Finally, please take the time to read this information about aggressive driving from the DC Metropolitan Police Department:
Aggressive driving is a combination of unsafe and unlawful actions that demonstrate a conscious and willful disregard for safety. The following offenses are included: running red lights and stop signs; following too closely, or tailgating; changing lanes unsafely; failing to yield the right of way; improper passing; and speeding. And aggressive driving is against the law.
Aggressive drivers may target bikers as well as drivers of other motorized vehicles. It’s in everyone’s best interest to avoid an aggressive driver rather than to engage him or her. Bikers can do that by getting out of their way and steering clear of them on the road; staying relaxed – remember, reaching your destination safely and calmly is your goal; not challenging them; avoiding eye contact; and ignoring rude gestures.
Whether you’re on a bicycle or in a car,6 you should report aggressive driving if you see it. Police will need to know the following information:
- Description of Vehicle (color, make, model, license plate state, and license plate number).
- Description of driver (sex, race, age, hair color, height, weight).
- Location of incident.
- Date and time of incident.
- Description of what happened.
- If you’re willing to be a witness, be sure to provide your name, address and phone number.
This information–along with great tips for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians–also comes in handy PDF form (download here). I’m going to put it up in my workplace and encourage you to do the same.
If you drive in DC, or anywhere, please be aware of pedestrians and cyclists! This means avoiding phone conversations, listening to loud music, or anything else that may distract you when you’re in your (relatively) safe metal bubble. Know your rights and responsibilities. Know your traffic laws. And remember, driving is a privilege, not a right.
My heart is still pounding, but at least I’m not crying anymore.
- For extra credit, check out this national report, aptly titled “Dangerous By Design”, on pedestrian accidents. [↩]
- Mum and Dad, if you’re reading this, please don’t panic. I’m as safe as I can be without giving up my right to personal, emission-free city transportation. [↩]
- In fact, sometimes bicycle lanes can be more dangerous than the road itself. Where there are lanes, they’re usually hemmed in on the left by traffic and the right by street parking. Even something as simple as a door opened from a parked car into the bicycle lane is enough to seriously injure or even kill an oncoming cyclist. [↩]
- There was a bicycle hit-and-run just last week. [↩]
- If you’re over the age of 16, you’re still just as likely to die from head trauma! Please wear a helmet. [↩]
- Or walking! [↩]