By Christopher Cudworth
A recent pair of stories really struck home on the issue of cycling safety. The first chronicled the death of a cyclist at a busy intersection on Diehl Road, a heavily traveled frontage route along I-88 in suburban Illinois:
A 56-year-old Naperville woman riding a bicycle died after she was struck by a pickup truck Wednesday morning at the intersection of Diehl Road and Freedom Drive in Naperville, police said.
Shwuwei Yeh was attempting to cross Diehl Road about 7:25 a.m. when she was hit by a gray 2006 Nissan Titan driven by a 35-year-old man, Naperville police said Thursday.
A Naperville Fire Department ambulance transported Yeh in very serious condition to Edward Hospital where she died of her injuries, police said.
The name of driver of the vehicle was not released.
Death and anonymity
There’s a whole bunch of interesting things going on in the actual news story quoted above from the Chicago Tribune (9.26.2013).
But let’s start from the bottom and work up because there is a telling and somewhat compelling aspect to this story in which a cyclist was killed after being struck by a Nissan Titan truck.
“The name of the driver was not released.”
Well, isn’t that insterting? A woman gets killed on her bike and the driver’s name is not released.
Let’s give the benefit of the doubt here.
The cyclist may been at fault. She may have made an egregious mistake in trying to cross a very busy Diehl road at 7:25 a.m. The sun is at an acute angle at that time of day. The driver of the truck approaching the intersection may have struggled just to see the color of the traffic lights.
Or the cyclist might have miscalculated. If she did not anticipate the speed of vehicles on that stretch and did not get rolling quick enough it would be impossible for any driver to stop.
This time of year the sun is at a particularly dangerous angle for drivers negotiating east-west roads. But let’s be honest. The sun can blind you any time of year if the angle of the sun at dawn is right over the road you’re driving. We’ve all encountered situations like
that. This photo illustrates typical lighting conditions at 7:30 in the morning in September. You have to look pretty close to even see there is a motorcylist in this photo at the center of the picture.
Cyclists show up even less.
Dealing with driving duress
How you handle bad driving conditions depends on your experience and wisdom behind the wheel.
You may not technically be at fault for striking a cyclist with your vehicle in such situations. But even if the news story hides your name, you’ve got to live with the consequences of hitting or injuring and killing a cyclist with your car or truck.
So how do you prevent it? How can cyclists also protect themselves while using roads at the time of day when sun blindness or other adverse driving conditions occur?
Bicyclists are not the only ones at risk when sun blindness strikes. Motorcycle riders face equal or greater risk in sun-blinded traffic conditions. Often the tail lights on vintage bikes especially are insufficient warning to motorists behind a motorcycle.
Of course the same largely holds true on many bicycles. Even with advances in technology and brightness of head and tail lights for bikes, especially LEDs and blinking lights, rear tail lights can prove insufficient when the glare of the sun coats the dirty or moisture-laden windshields of many cars.
Making wise choices
Being alert on your bike to certain traffic conditions is also key. In circumstances where traffic is restricted to one lane with a limited shoulder, much of the burden for safety rides on the cyclist, who must gauge whether using that specific road at a given time of day is safe at all.
In single-lane road conditions you cannot afford to make assumptions that cars will see you at all riding inside the white line. Depending on pace and volume of traffic, you may not be visible if a vehicle such as an SUV blocks the view of a driver behind them.
There is not sufficient reaction time for most drivers to avoid a cyclist who pops up in their lane. That circumstance is possibly what happened in the September 26, 2013, death of Richard White, a cyclist who was riding on a narrow, rolling stretch of road next to a forest preserve when he was hit from behind by a Nissan Rogue:
(CBS CHICAGO LOCAL) A North Aurora man was killed Thursday afternoon when the bicycle he was riding was struck by a car in northwest suburban Batavia Township.
Richard White, 50, was riding a bicycle north on Nelson Lake Road in Batavia Township when a northbound 2009 Nissan Rogue struck the rear tire of the bike about 2:15 p.m. just south of Main Street near the entrance to Dick Young Forest Preserve, according to a release from the Kane County Sheriff’s office.
White was not wearing a helmet and appeared to be wearing headphones when the car struck the bicycle, according to police.
The 26-year-old woman driving the Nissan, MaMaxima Corazona Cardino Ty of the 2100 block of Howard Street in Evanston, was ticketed for failure to reduce speed to avoid an accident, police said. Alcohol, drugs and texting were not a factor in the crash.
While it is a relief in some respects to find out that the Nissan Rogue driver was not texting or DUI, the fact that those conditions are even mentioned in the article reflects an overall pattern in accidents such as these. Distracted drivers are a menace to themselves and all others who use the roads.
Recent laws banning texting and use of cellphones while driving are designed to help the problem of distracted drivers. But people still text and use their phones in their vehicles as if they were driving a mobile office. We see it every day.
Now imagine you’re a cyclist pedaling 16 mph on a suburban street when a driver comes barreling up behind you with their eyes alternately on the radio and the text they just received. The road bends and the sun bursts from behind the trees at the very moment the speeding vehicle comes even with you and your bike on the road. The driver never sees you. Never knows you’re there. Suddenly you’re in the ditch and the driver is pulled over wondering what the hell happened. The first thing they do is dial their cell phone to call a friend and tell them “I just hit someone on a bike? What do I do?”
No one really knows what to do when they’ve struck a cyclist with their car because they never figure it will happen to them. Our lives are so insular with large vehicles and absorption in various types of technology that the organic visage of a cyclist pedaling along is foreign and annoying sight to a vast swath of citizenry.
Cyclists remain a population seen as “the other” on American roads, a notion that seems foreign to a European observer who analyzed American cycling infrastructure and found is stunningly lacking in forethought and safety. Our priorities still lie heavily with gas-powered vehicles and the people who drive them. Without a call to awareness and protection of cyclists, motorists feel no compunction to make respect for cyclists their business. All this is compounded by the crazily distracted manner in which Americans live their lives. DVD players in the SUV? No problem. GPS units in the dash? Not a worry. Smartphones?
You can quickly see your safety depends on you, and you alone.
Here are 5 quick rules to follow when making choices on which roads to ride, and when:
#1: Do not ride inside the white line when riding into the sun either East or West
#2: In conditions where there is more than one car passing every 30 seconds, do not ride on a two lane road without at least 1.5″ of shoulder.
#3: Always ride with blinking red tail lights on the back of the bike and it is preferable also mount a red light on the back of the helmet.
#4: When riding with one fellow rider or more, agree in advance whether to ride in single file or side by side. In a larger group it is imperative to communicate single file.
#5: Do not wear headphones or any other sound implement in high traffic areas.
You can’t be too safe
It all adds up to danger, and it all comes down to this. You can’t be too careful on your bike or even running on the roads. Drivers apparently have a tough time caring about how they drive. Many have literally forgotten the art and etiquette of separating hazards on the road. What a quaint notion. Isn’t that some crap we learned in Driver’s Ed long ago? Does that still apply?
The death of two cyclists within two days in Illinois may not be world-changing or even make the evening news where commuter-numbed brains of everyday drivers might dumbly acknowledge the story and realize they have a responsibility to look out for cyclists and motorcyles on the road. Yet the death of two cyclists hardly seems to matter unless we seek to heighten the meaning of these seemingly small events.
Giving name to our pain
If it was your husband or wife, child or sibling who got crushed by a Nissan Rogue or a Nissan Titan, it might matter a little more.
Or perhaps the muscular names we give our vehicles is an indication of our cultural obsession with power and the roads we use to express that power. Rogues and Titans are not exactly role models for consideration and moderation, now are they? Perhaps this pattern of robust ideological expression really is a reflection of how we conduct ourselves as a culture, our politics and our seemingly uncivil society. Everyone seems happy to take for themselves until the collective selfishness of a winner-take-all society hits them square in the rear wheel.
Suddenly it doesn’t matter what your politics or religion might be. When you’re flat in the ditch bleeding from the ears, the boneheads in Washington who neither respect the laws or the government they represent become real in a whole new way. You suddenly realize that our laws and how we abide by them really do matter. And if it isn’t the law that covers all things, then having the common courtesy to separate hazards should matter. It’s a basic quality of a good human being to respect the rights of others to run and ride on the roads we all own, and equally.
So it really does matter how we think and respond to life.
Be safe in the meantime
As for cyclists, to be safe you must take responsibility for how you ride. You must make choices that do not put you and your bike in fatal circumstances where your name becomes a headline and the driver remains anonymous.
It’s not entirely fair how careful you need to be to run and ride safely on the roads. Just know that the law with respect to cyclists is not sufficient to protect you from injury or harm. So take that upon yourself. No one else can do it for you.