How safe is it to bike in Sonoma County?
The theme for this month “Play at Home,” combined with the anticipation of warm summer weather and the continued sense of comfort with the pandemic seemingly in retreat, made me envision all the ways we can “play” on our bicycles. I have written a few columns now celebrating all the wonderful ways cycling in Sonoma County can be enjoyable. And May was “Bike to Wherever” month with lots of activities promoting all forms of cycling.
However, I was just recently reminded that fun cycling and safe cycling in our community are at odds. On May 19th, the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, along with other cycling organizations, organized a “Ride of Silence” to acknowledge the nine cyclists that were killed on Sonoma County streets and roads from 2018 to 2020. I am sure many of you may have seen these white “ghost bikes” around the county marking places where cyclists have died. And then just a day later we learned that another cyclist, hit by a drunk driver on May 12th, had died. I would be remiss if I did not talk about this issue. Many might try to categorize this recent death differently, as it was the caused by a suspected drunk driver, whereas some of the other recent deaths were either distracted or unsafe drivers. But that does not tell the whole story.
Recent data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that fatal incidents involving cyclists are on the rise. The year 2020 was the most deadly yet, with more than 850 cyclists killed on U.S. roads. According to a report by Streetlight, California, in fact, is the 10th most dangerous state for bicyclists. Pedestrian deaths also saw an increase of 45% between 2010 and 2019 based on a recent report from Smart Growth America. Furthermore, a report by the League of American Bicyclists in 2014 found that just 12 percent of the drivers involved were punished.
I myself had a close call some months back. I was riding from Cotati toward Sebastopol with some friends and a truck hauling a trailer came up behind us, horn blaring. He passed my friends and then approached me, very very close, inches rather than the required 3 feet. The move was quite intentional as he yelled something unintelligible out the window and I veered off the road. If I had not, the trailer would have crushed me. This driver could have waited mere seconds, as we were approaching an intersection. My life was not worth those few seconds. And this happens routinely in our county. We had photos and a license plate and I contacted the CHP but the best they could do was to write a letter to the perpetrator.
So how are we to reverse this trend? One way is to get MORE bicycles on the road. A study in the journal Injury Prevention found that when the number of cycling trips doubles, the injury rate per capita drops by a third, when adjusted for the rise in trips. Studies suggest that when drivers see more cyclists in a particular part of town, they drive more carefully there.
Other necessary actions include, providing better and safer bike and pedestrian infrastructure, stronger and more consistent punishment not just in the case of death, but for unsafe behavior and harassment, like I experienced. More driver education is also important – most driver’s education courses spend little to no time on the interaction of cars and bikes. Cyclists can also do more, like not riding against traffic or blowing through stoplights and being visible by wearing bright clothing and using bike lights.
Despite all the unfortunate events, there are many who have found and enjoy the benefits of riding in our beautiful area. Drivers and cyclists alike need to work toward safer roads in our County.
Thoughts about how to improve cycling safety in Sonoma County? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.