Tragedy in Renton, what can we learn?

It's spring. Trails are getting busier again.  All those people you didn't see on your commute in January are pumping up their tires and trying to put some miles on to get ready for Flying Wheels, Group Health STP, RSVP, or some other big event.  And, like clockwork, the increased travel on our multi-use trails brings an uptick in problems and conflicts.  My seven years with Cascade have shown that the grumbling generally fades by June -- and usually no one is worse for wear.

But this year, there was the terrible collision on Renton's Cedar River Trail.

A pedestrian, in a collision with a bicyclist, dies from her injuries. It's one of the last things I expect to hear during the course of a day. Though incredibly rare, events like this create discord and friction between user groups, and call into question funding and engineering decisions for non-motorized facilities in our communities.

Alternatively, we should use this tragedy as an opportunity to examine, evaluate, and educate -- cyclists and others -- in hope of preventing anything like this from ever happening again.

What do we know about bike/ped fatal crashes?

According to the national Pedestrian & Bicycle Information Center at UNC Chapel Hill, an estimated 70,000 pedestrians were injured or killed in motor vehicle collisions in 2003. Crash  rates (crashes per 100,000 people) are highest for 5- to 9-year-old males, who tend to dart out into the street.

Rates for older persons (age 65 and over) are lower than for most age groups, which may reflect greater caution by older pedestrians (e.g., less walking at night) and a reduced amount of walking near traffic. However, older adult pedestrians are much more vulnerable to serious injury or death when struck than younger pedestrians. For example, the percentage of pedestrian crashes resulting in death exceeds 20 percent for pedestrians over age 75, compared to less than 8 percent for pedestrians under age 14.

From William Moritz's 1998 study, we know that multi-use trails have a crash rate about 40% greater per mile than on roadways. This is thought to be due to two factors: the experience level of bicyclists who regularly ride with traffic is higher, and the perception of safety on trails leads users to operate with less caution. As a side-note, though trails stand out, the crash rate on sidewalks is 12 times higher still.

So, we know trails have more crashes per mile, and we know that certain populations are at greater risk from those crashes.  The fact that we aren't we seeing wholesale carnage on the Burke-Gilman or other trails in the region should give us some comfort that these facilities aren't fatally-flawed in their design, construction, and use.

From the available data, I can only find a handful of pedestrian deaths each year that result from collisions with bicyclists. Those that I've found generally involve someone stepping from between two cars and being struck at speed or an errant cyclist on a sidewalk, such as in New York where many fast-food restaurants employ bicycle deliverers, one of them struck and killed a 68-year on sidewalk pedestrian in 1992 or more recently in Seattle where a sidewalk rider knocked a woman under a bus.

The sidewalk crash rate and pedestrian fatalities teach important lessons, one of which is that even minor contact can have serious consequences. The second item to bear in mind is that there are populations that are either less predictable (children) or more vulnerable (older adults).  Finally, we know that speed plays a crucial role in crash severity as the kinetic energy is equal to half the mass times the velocity squared.

What can be done to minimize risk?

Simply put, there are things that bicyclists can do to minimize the potential for and severity of collisions:

1) Slow when others are present -- you can't know how other trail users will react when you're overtaking.  Going slower gives you more time to react AND will minimize the severity of a collision should one occur. No one's heart-rate or wattage is worth endangering others.  If you "need to go full-out", do it on the road, on rollers, or on your trainer -- not on a trail.

2) Use bell or voice when passing -- just like the ubiquitous signs say. If you're concerned that there's confusion among pedestrians as to what "on your left" means, try something else like "passing."

3) Pass safely. It sounds like a no-brainer, but I see bicyclists passing into oncoming traffic, passing two-abreast, and passing too closely daily. Pass single file.  Wait for oncoming traffic to pass before pulling around slower trail users. Works best when combined with 1 & 2.

4) Ride single file when others are present and stay as far to the right as is safe to facilitate overtaking. If you travel at a speed below the posted limit on our regional trails, make it safer and easier for faster riders to pass.

Our thoughts are with those affected, including the cyclist. Let's try to make this, the first bicycle on pedestrian collision fatality in our region in four years, the last.