Why is safety for cyclists so threatening?

If you’ve followed the conversation in social media and in the letters to the editor this week, you probably know that the conversation surrounding the death of Elyse Stern, who was struck by an apparent drunk driver while riding on Lake Street in Minneapolis, has been one of the most uncomfortable conversations in the news.

Some have pointed out that she wasn’t wearing a helmet and her bike didn’t have a light, but that sounds like blaming the victim for getting killed. And today on Daily Circuit, Steve Clark, walking and bicycling program manager for the non-profit Transit for Livable Communities, said neither would’ve helped anyway.

But the conversation has been a fine example of how people tend to retreat to corners to have conversations about safety in cycling. Curiously this week, however, the conversation has — for the most part — only been about the cyclist, and nothing about what can be done to make the environment in which they ride safer, which is too bad because the answer to that question is: a lot.

That appears to be the situation that frustrates cyclists in many major cities.

In Seattle, for example, a “guerrilla road safety” group called Reasonably Polite Seattleites, took it upon themselves to improve things, knowing the city would immediately undo them.

The “Seattle Bike Blog” reports the group installed reflector posts along a section of the bikes lane on a troublesome street.

“It’s essentially a warning system for a drunk or distracted driver; once he hits one, he’s more likely to slow down, lessening the chance of hitting a cyclist or pedestrian down the road,” the group said.

It spent $350 to install the posts, but did so with adhesive so the city could easily remove them once it declared them illegal, which it did, but not before it got the point.

“I am truly appreciative that you care enough to take time, money, and risk to send your message to me and my staff,” the city’s traffic engineer said. “It is my commitment to you that I will do my best to update our existing facilities and install new bicycle facilities that will be more thoughtful.”

That’s the back-and-forth that’s mostly missing in these conversations — an acknowledgement that providing for the safety of people on bikes isn’t a significant threat to anyone else.

(h/t: Brian Hanf)

  • Janne

    Thank you for writing this.

    -a cyclist working to make Minneapolis a safer place to ride a bike

  • dennis

    very serious issue here. You’re right that it needs to be discussed AND acted upon.

    On a lighter note: Make another video of you commuting to work on your bike. That was hilarious! Plus you could talk about any bicycle safety changes that may have happened since the last time you commuted on a bike.

  • Bob Collins

    Here’s the video.

    there actually have been quite a few. A bike path was built on lower Afton Road between McKnight and Highway 61. That ‘s off in the woods so now the only stretch I ride that actually on the street is that little road over to Battle Creek parking area and then the section from the landing on Shepherd up to MPR.

    Gee, maybe I should ride to work sometime. Well, I’ll wait til those colleague who keep the padlocks on the bike lockers overnight (s’posed to be first come/first served) see the light.

  • Snyder

    Is that a Diamondback Sorrento you rode in that video? If so, we have the same bike!

  • Bob Collins

    It is. My wife won it in a raffle at my youngest son’s school. That would’ve been about 15 years ago, I ‘d guess.

  • Snyder

    Also, to put my two cents in on the topic, I think bikers felt like with the focus on whether Stern had lights and a helmet, people were letting the drunk driver off the hook.

    Bicycle commuters do need to follow the rules and do need to use common sense like wearing helmets and having lights/reflective clothing when riding in the dark. However, when you have a car driver vs. bicycle rider incident, the bicycle rider is pretty much guaranteed to lose every time. Drivers need to be aware of that and also focus on being more responsible, courteous and more observant of their surroundings.

  • Nick Coleman

    I am one of the “some” who mentioned the cyclist’s lack of defensive/protective equipment. I am also a cyclist who has had many close encounters with idiot drivers. But if you argue, as I do, that you are putting your hope in The Bicycle Fairy to protect you if you don’t wear a helmet, well, then you are accused of “blaming the victim.” No, I am not blaming the victim, who might well have died no matter what she did to protect herself. But I am puzzled by cyclists who angrily assert their right to ride, in the dark, and at bar-closing time, without taking the simplest measures to protect themselves. I favor harsh penalties and stringent law enforcement against drunk/irresponsible drivers. But I also favor mandatory helmet laws. I have a mess of bike-riding children. If any of them died while riding without a helmet, I would be haunted the rest of my life.

  • Dean Carlson

    I have to agree with the last couple of comments.

    While not defending the drunk driver or maintaining that it would have made a difference in this particular case, I implore anyone who rides their bike to wear a helmet. And if you ride after dark, get a light. Will it put a protective shield around you and save you from all idiot drivers? No. But it could save your life. I should know: a bike helmet saved my life (or at a minimum severe brain injury) two summers ago.

  • Bob Collins

    And here we are: talking about one rider, bike helmets, and lights again.

  • Nick Coleman

    Bob: Half the cyclists I see these days are young people who think they will live forever and wear no helmet. You can talk overall bike safety all you want — signage and bike lanes and reflectors… yadda yadda yadda. But if the riders won’t protect themselves, you might as well be talking about a campaign to stop the spread of STDs to people who won’t put on condoms.

  • Steve

    Cycling safety needs to be better communicated as far as all modes of transportation are concerned. The investment made to make cycling an attractive means of commuting/recreational activity ought to be supported by effectively communicated safety guidelines. Cities are trying to get more folks into cycling by building bike paths, painting lanes, signing bike routes etc., but too often those cities aren’t following through to educate drivers about the legitimacy of cyclists who choose to utilize roads as state laws permit.

    There’s also the other threat that adult cyclists who opt to ride on sidewalks pose to pedestrians. Outside of downtown Minneapolis I don’t know of any communities that minimally enforce the law to keep bicycles on the road – where vehicles with 150+ pound riders belong. Though if drivers received better educated about sharing the road with cyclists we would probably have a lot more that would be confident in their ability to safely ride on surface streets.

  • David G

    Steve, I agree that adults on bicycles do not belong on sidewalks. But, outside of business districts, there is no state law prohibiting that. A city may choose to enact such an ordinance, but there’s no state law.

  • Dylan Kvasnicka

    //Curiously this week, however, the conversation has — for the most part — only been about the cyclist, and nothing about what can be done to make the environment in which they ride safer, which is too bad because the answer to that question is: a lot.

    I agree, a lot can be done. But what do you do with that certain breed of biker that just refuses to play by the rules, blowing stop signs, traffic lights, or riding outside the confines of designated bike lanes because the rest of the bike traffic is too slow for them? A prime example of this is Mississippi River Boulevard and its opposite West River Parkway. There is a designated bike lane on one section of the street, while there is also a bike path up off the road. Having taken that route innumeral times, both by bike and car, I have seen way too many close calls when you have pushy drivers and and stubborn gung-ho bicyclists.

    There is a lot that could be done to make biking safer, but what do we do when there are those who flatly refuse to play by the rules.


    //Half the cyclists I see these days are young people who think they will live forever and wear no helmet.

    I’m 26 and I mostly, grudgingly, agree. I see way too many of my peers, mostly hipsters, without any safety gear.

  • EG Melby

    Having been hit by a car 2 1/2 years ago (by a guy who did a rolling stop into a right hand turn and right into me) I can’t stress helmets enough!!! I wouldn’t be here today if i hadn’t been wearing one. Yeah…i have helmet hair, but it’s better than 6 feet under.

  • Presley

    RIP Elyse Stern!

    I’m an everyday bike rider who has evolved from a helmet-less light-less rider in my twenties to a helmeted and lighted rider in my thirties. Wisdom comes with age, and being hit twice by cars, both in daylight. Just last night I took my bike on the train ’cause I forgot my lights and didn’t want to risk the ride. I’ve seen remarkable progress in my twenty+ years of bike riding, but we have a long way to go. Keep up the good fight.

  • Tim

    I am not a bicylist, but my understanding is that, in most parts of the world, neither helmet laws nor wearing helmets is the norm. When I was in Japan five years ago, I saw tons on people on bikes, but nobody wore a helmet (they also rode on sidewalks, too, which took some getting used to for me but generally seemed fine).

  • Josh

    I am a proponent of helmets. I wear mine anytime I am on my bike.

    I also know when I am on my bike that if I were to get in a accident with a car, I am probably going to lose the battle every time. So I do everything I can to make myself more visible to cars.

  • Michelle

    I think it’s a shame about the person that got killed on her bike. There’s a huge problem with people obeying the simple traffic laws. They should apply to everyone. I’m definitely not blaming the victim but when you drive a car and you don’t wear your seatbelt you get a ticket. Too many people have died from not wearing them . My husband rides his bike to work. I’ve been driving and been at a 4way stop and as I pull off there’s been cyclists flying right across me without stopping,I could have hit them if cyclists want to ride the road they need to obey the road.EVERYONE needs to be more careful and they say wear your seatbelt, ticket if you don’t same should go with helmets. I bet alot more lives will be saved.

  • Jennifer K

    I’m a more recent helmeted cyclist. I am a complete convert to the necessity of a helmet. But as there continue to be people who won’t wear seatbelts in cars, there will be people who won’t wear helmets on bikes (or motorcycles).

    And yes, a helmet alone does not guarantee safety. The missing helmet wasn’t driving the car that hit the cyclist.

    Drivers need to pay more attention and be aware of what the rules are. Education campaigns about what is permitted of cyclists, and about what is required of drivers, e.g. 3 feet to pass, would be a tremendous help. I hear people rant about cyclists on the sidewalk, and in the next breath rant about cyclists in the road. Drivers often don’t know the rules, they pass too close, etc.

    The bike paths are nice, but there are speed limits on many of them. That works for leisure riding, but commuters and athletes (there’s a big racing community here for cycling, triathlon, and duathlon) are going faster than 10 mph. West River Road is a problem area — the road is rough and narrow, but the path is crowded and has a speed limit. But the road is good for training becuase there aren’t many stops. There’s a thought — keep the roads in good repair.

    The bus campaigns about pulling away from the curb were pretty helpful, I thought. I certainly was informed. The Start Seeing Motorcycles bumper stickers were also a good reminder. Do something like that. And target kids — kids learn it, and they teach their parents (think Smokey the Bear and Woodsy Owl).

    Also, keep the lane lines painted! I watched cars create a new lane driving right down the bike lane the other day in Minneapolis.

    Look at problem intersections or crossings and put in crossing lights with buttons where cyclists can reach them (near the road).

    In an ideal world, create bike-only roads; make parking ramps (underground would be awesome) so that street parking can be reduced or eliminated to give more room to cyclists and drivers.

  • Ross Williams

    @Nick Coleman

    I assume you only ride in cars with roll bars and you always wear a helmet and fire proof suit like a race car driver.

    The truth is that people have been riding bikes for over a century without helmets. Most of them have survived just fine. I wear a helmet. I have multiple lights for riding at night. But helmets, lights and batteries cost money. Helmets are not always comfortable. There is a trade off between comfort, convenience, cost and safety.

    MNDOT designs highways so that when motorists go off them at 70 mph, there is nothing for them to run into except the occasional pedestrian. They don’t blame the driver for not having the kind of safety equipment that allows race car drivers to run into walls and walk away.

  • Amanda H.

    If she was a pedestrian crossing the street would we be asking if she was wearing a helmet and had lights on?

    I am in my twenties and I always wear my helmet. The people I know who do not wear helmets have very specific reasons for it and are not hipsters. Categorizing people and then writing them off does not advance the conversation.

    Our city streets need to be designed with consideration for all forms of transportation, not cars first. People travel by car, foot, bike or wheelchair and all should be considered equally.

  • Miki Takata

    Elyse Stern was a friend of many and her loss has been devastating to this community. We did not need a loss like this to remind us of life’s beauty or to live each day fully; we already do this. What this great loss has triggered is a response to try and insure something similar doesn’t happen again. A bike light, a helmet, better city planning for bikers- perhaps none of these things would have saved Elyse from a very intoxicated person driving a car, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take action to avoid future accidents. This fund is an early step.

    Any donation will go to subsidizing access to affordable helmets and lights, as well as to educating both drivers and cyclists as to the rules of the road, such as they are.

    Despite great strides, especially here in Minneapolis, our society is structured around the automobile and will be so for the foreseeable future. In light of this, access to safety and awareness on cyclists’ behalf is necessary in order to safe-gaurd themselves before and after a collision. Lights and helmets not only help to avoid collisions but also further insure that when collisions do happen, that responsibility is more equitably distributed.

    With your help we can take steps toward a city where tragedy strikes the simple act of mobility less.

    Here is the link to Elyse’s Fund: http://www.gofundme.com/2hjvac