High rate of cycling injuries in SLO may be a 'call to action for decision-makers'

This five-second exposure shows traffic at California Boulevard and Monterey Street, where the bicycle lane has been striped with green. Still, right turns by cars into the bike lanes in both directions have been dangerous.
This five-second exposure shows traffic at California Boulevard and Monterey Street, where the bicycle lane has been striped with green. Still, right turns by cars into the bike lanes in both directions have been dangerous. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

If San Luis Obispo were ranked in the top 10 statewide for sunshine, hikes, or healthy habits, residents wouldn’t bat an eye. But what about bike accidents?

San Luis Obispo is seventh worst in the state for bicyclist injuries and deaths per 1,000 residents when compared with 262 cities with populations over 25,000, the California Office of Traffic Safety’s most recent statistics show.

San Luis Obispo’s ranking jumps to first or second most dangerous for each year since 2008 when the field is narrowed to 93 California cities with populations of 25,000 to 50,000.

“It’s a call to action for decision-makers to build bike paths faster,” said Dan Rivoire, executive director of the San Luis Obispo County Bicycle Coalition. “We want people to be able to ride on safe streets with low traffic volume and speed. We want people to feel safe riding their bikes.”

The raw number of bike injuries in San Luis Obispo is on par with cities twice its size or larger, said Chris Cochran, a spokesman for the California Office of Traffic Safety.

“At 52 persons killed or injured (in 2011), San Luis Obispo had the same number of victims as El Cajon, Ventura, Davis, and one less victim than Bakersfield and Visalia, and one more than Torrance, which are all considerably larger cities,” he said.

The latest data, from 2011, do not distinguish between bicycle injuries and the relatively few bicycle deaths. In the city of San Luis Obispo, the only recorded bicycle death in 10 years took place in January 2011 on Prado Road, when a drunk man on a bicycle turned left in front of a truck, said Tim Bochum, deputy director of San Luis Obispo’s Public Works department.

Because the several thousand students who live on campus at Cal Poly are not included in the city’s population figure —but their injuries could be—San Luis Obispo’s high injury-rate ranking may be slightly inflated, Bochum said.

But the raw number of accidents remains alarmingly high in any case.

“I’ve got to call it a real number, because that’s what people are experiencing,” Bochum said.

Valerie Ferrario, a cyclist who rides daily, is one of those people.

“I’ve had drivers run me off the road,” Ferrario said. “An old lady even drove her car into the bike lane to ask me how to get to Morro Bay.”

But isn’t SLO “Bike-Friendly”?

San Luis Obispo has been ranked a “Silver” level Bicycle Friendly Community since October 2007 by the League of American Bicyclists, a nationwide nonprofit organization that designates communities throughout the United States at Diamond, Platinum, Gold, Silver, or Bronze levels.

Local experts cite San Luis Obispo’s bike-friendliness as the precise reason why there are so many accidents.

“More bicycle volumes make for higher collisions,” Bochum said.

Census data from 2010 show that 5.2 percent of city residents commute to work by bicycle. However, older counts by the city of San Luis Obispo in 2008 show even higher ridership: 11 percent of adult residents used a bicycle as their primary mode of transportation to and from work or school, and 13 percent commuted by bicycle at least three to four days a week.

For most cities, 2 to 3 percent ridership is considered significant, according to a 2009 bike plan for Davis—a city that illustrates that more cyclists doesn’t necessarily mean more accidents.

Davis was the first city in the nation to receive a Platinum rating for bike friendliness: approximately 17 percent of all journey-to-work trips in Davis are made by bicycle; it has bike lanes on about 95 percent of all its arterials and collectors; police give away blinking rear lights to people who don’t have them; and Davis is the only U.S. community with two full-time bike coordinators and two bicycle advisory committees (one for the city and one for UC Davis), according to the city.

Even though Davis has approximately 20,000 more residents than San Luis Obispo, the two cities had the same number of recorded bike injuries in 2011.

“We are an older city,” Bochum said about San Luis Obispo. “Many of the intersections and street design standards in terms of narrowness and visibility have a different makeup,” compared to Davis, which was planned with biking in mind.

San Luis Obispo’s five most dangerous intersections, according to the 2010 traffic report, are all located in the older downtown core.

“Those intersections were designed exclusively for cars,” Rivoire said. Bochum said the city is aware of the problem. “We are trying to build that infrastructure within the existing fabric of the town. It’s a very expensive undertaking,” he said.

Who is at fault?

Laurie Fraser rides regularly through San Luis Obispo, and said she feels safe riding here.

“It’s so much better here than in LA. There’s less traffic. People don’t drive well, but they do drive slower,” she said.

In September 2007, Fraser was riding her bike through a green-lighted intersection in Long Beach at night. Though she had a headlight on her bike, a driver turned left in her path. She broke her pelvis and his windshield in the same instant.

Long healed and now a resident of San Luis Obispo, Fraser is doubly careful, assuming no driver sees her.

“Before my accident, I knew I was invisible. But now I know how much it hurts to be invisible,” Fraser said. “Maybe my behavior has made me feel safer.”

The city of San Luis Obispo Traffic Collision database shows that neither cyclists nor drivers are grossly at fault for most bicycle collisions.

Bicyclists caused the majority of bike collisions from 2007 to 2009 in San Luis Obispo, while drivers were more at fault for bike collisions in 2006 and 2010.

“Year over year, you see the numbers [of who’s at fault] are generally balanced. On a national level, that’s also the case,” said Rivoire, of the bicycle coalition. “The onus is on both sides.”

In 2010, the top three causes for bicycle accidents in San Luis Obispo were: Motorist turning left in front of cyclist (18 percent); cyclist losing control (16 percent); and motorist turning right in front of cyclist (12 percent).

Although a local study about what causes solo falls has not been completed, national statistics show that road debris, cracks in the road that run parallel to tires, and distractions are the top reasons cyclists lose control of their bikes, Rivoire said.

He said he thought the quality of roads in San Luis Obispo tends to be better than potholed roadways elsewhere in the county.

Ferrario, the competitive cyclist, thinks college students commuting in a hurry to classes may raise the city’s bike injury rate.

“They don’t practice the safest techniques in riding,” she said.

San Luis Obispo Police Captain Chris Staley says cyclists sometimes violate the rules of the road, such as riding on the wrong side of the street.

However, Ferrario believes that even following the rules can’t save you from unsafe drivers.

"Do you want to know cyclist’s greatest enemy? The distracted driver,” she said. “It’s frightening when someone drops something under the dash or is texting. All we have is Lycra and a helmet to protect us.”

The road ahead

A 2008 Grand Jury report entitled “Great Paths but Galling Gaps, Bicycle Riding in SLO County” blamed a disconnected network of bike infrastructure for injuries countywide.

“City cyclists literally enjoying a ride in the park are abruptly diverted onto potholed commercial or residential streets where the doors of parallel parked cars can open, unexpectedly forcing the rider to either swerve into traffic or crash into a vehicle’s door. Both bad choices,” the report said.

Although the city has incorporated bike paths into major new subdivisions for about 20 years, the report identifies key gaps: the narrow Los Osos Valley Road Interchange at Highway 101, and missing links in the Railroad Safety Trail.

As of 2012, 2.2 miles of this 4.5-mile path along the railroad have been completed. From 2008 to 2012, the city provided 7.4 miles of major bicycle facilities at a cost of $3.2 million.

There are several projects in the works, pending the acquisition of state and federal grants. The city’s goal is to increase bicycle ridership to 20 percent by 2020, but it has yet to hire a full-time bicycle coordinator.

"Funding is the greatest barrier to constructing a safer network of bike friendly streets and paths. But, even as the city receives more grant funds and invests local dollars in building bikeways, there isn’t enough staff capacity to complete the environmental, engineering, and design to complete projects on the timeline that the public wants,” Riviore said.

The city contracts with the San Luis Obispo County Bicycle Coalition to provide bike education classes addressing riders’ rights, traffic laws, riding with confidence, emergency riding skills, and route planning. In 2012, 94 adults participated in these workshops.

The coalition also reaches thousands of elementary school students through assemblies at local schools. But even while San Luis Obispo works to increase bike infrastructure and education, biking is a healthy and cost-effective way to commute, Rivoire said.

The threat of accidents doesn’t keep him from biking.

“Bicycling benefits outweigh the risks,” he said.

How SLO rates in bike injuries or deaths

Compared to 93 California cities with populations between 25,000-50,000:

2011: 52 cyclists killed or injured, ranked 2/93 per 1,000 population

2010: 63 cyclists killed or injured, ranked 1/93

2009: 53 cyclists killed or injured, ranked 2/98

2008: 46 cyclists killed or injured, ranked 1/97 Source: California Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) Collision Rankings