Seattle needs to get Serious about Bike Safety. Changing Policies for Accident Liability Would be a Powerful Next Step

Last August I was hit by a car in downtown Seattle while on my way King Street Station.  It was 6:45 in the morning and I was on my way to catch the Sounder Train to my job in Kent.  As I was coming down Second Avenue, riding in the bike lane, a large van with ladders on its roof and the words “NW Fire Systems, LLC” decaled in large text on its driver’s-side panel sped past me before making a left turn into my lane. Not to play the victim, but I was doing everything right.  I was in a bike lane, I had rear and front lights, I checked left and right for cars in front of me or behind me, but still it happened.  Sometimes there’s nothing you can do to avoid trouble, at least not with current transportation design and policy failures that offer very limited protection for vulnerable road users (cyclists and pedestrians) and fail to impose consequences for unsafe actions among powerful road users (cars and trucks).  It ended up not being a very bad accident.  I had a couple bruises and my bike was banged up, but I didn’t suffer any major injuries.

Less than two weeks later a cyclist was killed on the same street, 6 blocks from where I was hit (http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/cyclist-killed-days-before-city-to-upgrade-notorious-bike-lane/ ).  It’s true that the City of Seattle has made some recent improvements to bicycle infrastructure, but the current state of our streets still make alternative transportation choices like biking a very dicey proposition.    While some of the recent bike infrastructure improvements the city has implemented are real game changers—protected bike lanes, designated bike traffic lights—others, like sharrows and discontiguous bike lanes, represent little more than empty gestures.  Ultimately none of them is going to be enough to make cycling safe on their own.  Real change requires a paradigm shift in liability and enforcement of traffic laws.

If the city wants to make real progress on bike safety, incidents like mine this past summer simply cannot be allowed to happen.  Cars who hit bikes need to be dealt very serious consequences.  Drivers who make decisions that endanger cyclists and pedestrians, like using bike lanes as loading zones (see my photo below, or this video http://youtu.be/hQTNhTFFKXA ), need sufficient disincentive to stop doing so.

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(Seattle’s “protected” bike lane on Broadway St. in Capitol Hill works better as a loading lane than a bike route.)

Cities in northern Europe have begun to address these issues.  Both Denmark and the Netherlands have imposed a policy of ‘strict liability’.  Under strict liability in the event of an accident between a car and cyclist the car is considered responsible for the crash unless it can be proven that the cyclist was at fault (more here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=4_Bq1vxCUvo).  This puts motorists on the hook for full damages to injured cyclists.  The result is cities where cycling has been made safe for all users, not just gutsy 20-something men.  According to 2009 study by the Netherlands Ministry of Transportation, cycling accounts for a quarter of all trips, both rural and urban, in the Netherlands.  Compare that with 4.2% in Seattle, according to a 2012 study by the League of American Cyclists.

One of the difficulties in getting such laws passed is the challenge of overcoming the widespread belief that cyclists are self-righteous, dangerous, and ultimately, just in the way.  Just take a look at the following interaction between a Seattle Police officer and a pair of cyclists on Capitol Hill (http://youtu.be/sAEmPc42Y38).  Even in liberal Seatte, with all it’s progressiveness, attitudes toward cyclists have a long way to come before ridership rates like those of the Netherlands can be attained.  A helpful nudge would be for the city to impliment Strict Liability policies, and push enforcement against motorists who endanger cyclists.

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