Too often, we decide to chalk up traffic deaths as the cost of doing business: as long as cars, bicycles and human beings take up the same space on our streets, collisions will occur, people will die, and the person to blame will always be the one who can no longer speak for him or herself. This is wrong. There are numerous policies the city could adopt, now, that would make traffic safer for everyone on Philly’s streets.
When Philadelphia cyclists gather for the annual Ride of Silence on May 20, they’ll remember, first out loud, then quietly, the six bicyclists killed throughout the Delaware Valley over the last year. And fresh on everyone’s mind will be Vijay Mohan, the 26-year-old filmmaker who was killed on his bike while crossing Girard Ave. in Brewerytown.
Mohan was struck by a 23-year-old man driving a Buick Roadmaster around 12:05 a.m. on Sunday, then transferred to Hahnemann Hospital with severe fractures and head trauma, according to a police report of the incident. He died just hours later.
Mohan, who lived on the 1300 block of North 26th Street, was like many in the city who have embraced a two-wheeled lifestyle. But as more people use bikes to get around — with or without helmets, during rush hour or after dark — some invariably are struck by cars.
It was a strange, dark, dreary prediction in the wake of such tragedy. But it fit the usual script: It blamed the victim, then shrugged off all traffic violence as unavoidable.
Too often, we decide to chalk up these tragedies as the cost of doing business: as long as cars, bicycles and human beings take up the same space on our streets, collisions will occur, people will die, and the person to blame will always be the one who can no longer speak for him or herself.
This is wrong. We shouldn’t accept that these sorts of incidents are inevitable. There are numerous policies the city could adopt, now, that would make traffic safer for everyone on Philly’s streets.
What a cyclist wears is not the most imporant thing
There are, on average, more than 500 reported crashes involving bicycles each year in Philadelphia, according to recent PennDOT statistics. Each crash is unique and often comes from a range of situations.
Yet, every time we read about another crash on Philadelphia’s streets, the conversation isn’t about preventing these crashes from occurring again; it’s about whether the cyclist could have saved his or her own life, with or without evidence that a helmet would have actually helped.
Don’t get me wrong: I commute to work by bike and wear a helmet every day. I have lights on my handlebars and my saddle. I believe I owe my helmet for keeping me safe in a 2012 trolley track flip over my handlebars and into a barrier on 12th Street. But helmets are not the entire answer.
Two years ago, two federal government agencies agreed to withdraw the claim, dating from 1989, that bicycle helmets prevent 85 percent of injuries, which the media regularly presents as fact. More recent analyses show that helmets more likely reduce risk of injury by about 15 to 45 percent.
In the case of Temple student Rachel Hall, who was struck by a hit-and-run driver on Diamond Street in North Philadelphia on April 29, the suspect didn’t even have a license. Still, sources like NBC10 were quick to point out that Hall wasn’t wearing a helmet despite the lack of evidence that it would have made a difference if she had.
Whether intentional or not, making the cyclist’s apparel part of the story of a licenseless driver who fled the scene shifts all of the responsibility onto the victim and allows everyone else to wash their hands of the entire situation. I’m not as interested in whether an injured or murdered cyclist was wearing a helmet. I am interested, however, in the actions of the person behind the wheel of the 2,500-pound motor vehicle for which no bicycle is a match.
Safer streets can help everyone
When 68-year-old Elizabeth Karnicki of Beaumont, Texas, was killed by a duck boat on May 8, we heard all about how she A) had her face buried in an iPad as she B) crossed the street against a red light (in the Inquirer’s headline and sub-hed, respectively).
It took until the seventh paragraph to hear about how,
Other officers said the operator of the vehicle told police he could not see the woman.
In other words, there’s a private company operating World War II-era land- and sea-mobiles that likely do not give the driver a full view of what’s in front of them as they chauffeur kazoo-tooting tourists around our city’s streets, but the focus of the conversation is about the distracted pedestrian instead of what we can do about making our streets safer for all users.
Maybe it’s time to have a conversation about, you know, whether gigantic sea vessels should be operating in the some of the most densely populated areas of our city. Or, better yet, what about improving our infrastructure in ways that prevent tragedies like these from taking place?
Philadelphia can make this work
The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia put together a report last fall called “Safer Streets,” which analyzed many of the problems facing road users in the city. Then, with several partners, we created the “Better Mobility” platform to address these problems.
“Better Mobility” introduces several safety-oriented, traffic-calming measures to Philadelphia that are already practiced elsewhere — things like road diets, pedestrian refuge islands, better on-street signage, more funds for paving, red light and safety cameras, more bike lanes and protected bike lanes. And unlike mandatory helmet laws, they’ve been proven to keep road users safer.
Perhaps the best-publicized aspect of “Better Mobility” has been the “Vision Zero” plan. Vision Zero is essentially a set of policies that governments use to reduce and, ultimately, eliminate traffic deaths. Created in Sweden (obviously) in 1997, it since has been adopted by countries, states and cities to address the problem of traffic violence head on — most recently, New York City and San Francisco.
You may remember the initial outrage at New York City’s Vision Zero policy when speed limits were lowered to 25 miles per hour. Earlier this year, NewsWorks asked all mayoral candidates about the proposal and all gave the idea a thumbs up. Councilwoman Cindy Bass even wrote a resolution earlier this year that called on Philadelphia to adopt Vision Zero.
Already in Philadelphia, some aspects of Vision Zero have positively affected city streets. In 2009, buffered bike lanes were installed on Spruce and Pine Streets in Center City. Reportable crashes between 2010 and 2012 declined 26 percent, as compared to the number of crashes that occurred between 2006 and 2008, and the amount of vehicles using those streets has remained constant.
Of course, large, buffered bicycle lanes — and, soon, physically separated, protected ones — are only a piece of the larger puzzle to keep all road users safe. Sure, much of the responsibility falls upon the bicyclists and pedestrians to adhere to the law and common sense; stop crossing against red lights, riding through stop signs, and distracting ourselves on handheld electronics while crossing the streets.
However, Philadelphia also needs to make traffic violence a higher priority by investing more in prevention measures, like fully funding the Streets Department to pave more streets and fill more potholes, using red light cameras and safety camera enforcement of motor vehicles, and making enforcement of standard state laws, like a four-foot passing zone, a priority. Without these measures, and others, referring to traffic deaths as “invariable” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Randy LoBasso is a former staff writer at Philadelphia Weekly and currently works for the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.