A Sad Summer is a Call to Action

It’s been a sad summer in the bicycling community.

A friend called me Monday night to report the fifth cyclist death in a Portland-area crash since the start of June. We must stop and mourn the deaths and honor the lives of our neighbors, our friends, and our family members. We also have to respond, and act today to prevent future deaths.

The media are writing and reporting on the issue, with a bleed-and-lead headline blaring from last Friday’s Portland Tribune “Walk, ride at your peril.” That’s irresponsible journalism, as biking and walking remain relatively safe activities. But it’s right for people to be concerned.

Community members are looking to point fingers, wanting to know “Why is this happening, and who should be blamed?” After five deaths, it would ease our minds if there were a single reason. But there is no single reason.

Luckily, there are things we can do. Most of these crashes are not just accidents – they are preventable. Whether or not we take the actions we know will improve safety, instead of wishing the deaths away, depends on our collective will.

First, as drivers and cyclists, we have to act responsibly when we’re on the road. As drivers, we need to yield to bikes, drive defensively and at reasonable speeds, not drink and drive, forgo distractions such as talking on cell phones, and generally be courteous and thoughtful. As cyclists, we need to be visible and ride predictably and defensively. We need to yield to others when appropriate and be aware that drivers may not see us. Sharing our roads doesn’t have to be deadly. People can learn more at www.easytoshare.com.

Second, law enforcement officials need to respond effectively and send a clear message that our roads must be safe for all. Negligent and dangerous drivers who are making our roads unsafe by speeding through neighborhoods and in school zones, running red lights, and driving while drunk, must be cited, especially when their actions result in deaths.

Third, our elected officials must dedicate the required resources to identify the most dangerous roads and bridges and fix them, as well as improving safety during every upgrade. The Oregon Department of Transportation recently spent $38 million revamping the St. Johns Bridge and failed to include safe bike facilities. That should be unacceptable.

Fourth, community partners such as the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA), schools, and Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) must work to educate drivers and bicyclists about safely sharing the road. The BTA and others will continue to provide bike safety education classes to beginning cyclists, working to create safe habits for a lifetime. The DMV should make sure drivers get the same training.

Fifth, the media should continue to draw attention to the crashes, in a thoughtful and responsible way. While drawing attention to specific problems and incidents, media stories should remind us that bicycling remains a safe way to move about Portland, and has long-term health benefits that far outweigh the odds of being in a crash. Moreover, bicycling is getting safer and safer as more people bicycle, as drivers are getting more used to people on the road. The media should also remind us that driving is a dangerous activity, both for drivers and other road users. Every year in Portland, roughly fifteen times more drivers and passengers die than cyclists, yet those deaths fade into the background.

Each bicyclist’s death is tragic. But those deaths will be even more tragic if we do not act decisively, and take actions that we know can save lives today.

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