A woman died in Sioux Falls last week when she was biking down the sidewalk with a trailer in tow. A driver of an SUV did not see her when she pulled out into traffic.
The Argus Leader said no charges were filed, and police at this point “consider the crash a tragic accident.”
It is certainly tragic. But to call it an “accident” makes it too easy to ignore the problems that led to a young woman’s death.
I do not blame the driver. I can understand exactly how this accident happened, because I have been behind the wheel in almost the exact same circumstances. While waiting to turn right at a stop sign in Aberdeen, I started to go when I saw a break in traffic—only to hit the brakes as a young man on a bicycle dodged the front of my car, slamming his hand on the hood for balance as he veered out of my way. I had not seen anyone on the sidewalk when I stopped at the intersection, but the bicyclist, coming fast from the right, reached me while I was watching for the right moment to turn. The difference between my case and the Sioux Falls driver’s was a matter of a couple seconds and a little luck.
I don’t blame the bicyclist, either. Unless that sidewalk had been made specifically to accommodate both bicycles and pedestrians, according to the rules of the road, she should have been riding on the road, with the flow of traffic. On many roads and at many times of day, however, that is a dangerous option.
I biked to work on occasion when I lived in North Carolina, doing my best to stay out of cars’ way on mountain streets with narrow shoulders. Depending on the time of day and the amount of traffic, I sometimes got to work wobbly-kneed from the stress: I knew that I was on defense at all times because I was on cars’ turf, where drivers were not expecting me. You’ve seen the billboards “Start seeing motorcycles”—how much more invisible was I on my bicycle, when I had no rumbling motor to clue drivers in to my presence? I would have welcomed a sidewalk on many of those roads, whether that was against the rules or not.
Both the driver and the bicyclist were doing what anyone in that situation would have been reasonably expected to do. Unfortunately, we as a nation have developed a traffic system in which a reasonable risk-avoidance strategy on the part of a bicyclist and a reasonable expectation of no bikes on the sidewalk on the part of the driver can be fatal.
Every time we design a road without consideration for bicyclists and pedestrians we set the stage for just this kind of “tragic accident.”
It does not have to be this way.
I have traveled often to Finland, where my grandmother lived until her death seven years ago. While there, I biked almost everywhere, taking cars rarely. (My grandmother, who lived at home to the age of 93, never learned to drive a car, biking or taking the bus where she needed to go.) I did not wear a bicycle helmet, as I didn’t feel I needed one; bicycling was a safe, relaxing way to get from Point A to Point B.
The key difference? Finland, as well as most European countries, have developed systems that keep bicyclists and pedestrians safe.
When I departed from my grandmother’s home, I simply had to cross the street to get on a bike path. That’s the only real traffic I needed to deal with, as from that point on, bicycle traffic was kept separate from car traffic. If I came to a busy road, I could cruise underneath it by way of an underpass. At intersections without underpasses, drivers are warned with prominent signage to watch for bikes and yield to them.
Making bikes easy and safe to use makes them common. Nearly every business has a bike rack out front; schools have long rows of bike racks. I’d venture to guess that most Finnish parents feel safe in letting their children ride their bikes to school.
And it’s probably a pretty safe bet that many, if not most, American parents do not.
I am not sure who was in charge of designing the street on which this young woman died, or when that designing happened. To be fair, traffic has certainly increased since that time, and it was probably built when bicycling was rarer.
But now we know better. If we aren’t planning our future roads and road improvements to make travel safe for bicycles as well as cars, we are setting the stage for reasonable people making reasonable decisions that result in more fatalities.
Those deaths will be tragic. But they will not be accidents.