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Please Stop Using Blaine Klingenberg’s Death as an Excuse to Shame Cyclists

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 5.17.00 PM
CBS Chicago's Dorothy Tucker at Wednesday's crash site. CBS used the fatal collision as an opportunity to scold bicyclists. Screenshot from the CBS report.

Family and friends, and the Chicago bike courier community, are mourning the death of Blaine Klingenberg, 29, who was fatally struck on his bike by a tour bus driver Wednesday evening at Oak Street and Michigan Avenue.

Meanwhile online commenters are heartlessly ridiculing the victim, arguing that he foolishly brought on his own demise. Even mainstream news sources are running pieces implying that Klingenberg’s actions were largely to blame for the fatal crash. Moreover, they’re using this tragedy as a chance to lecture bike riders about safety, as if reckless biking, rather than dangerous driving, was the leading cause of carnage on our streets.

First let’s get one thing straight. Despite what you may have read elsewhere, we don’t know exactly what caused this tragedy. Here’s the information we do have at this point.

Shortly after finishing a day of finishing a day of delivery work for Advanced Messenger Service, on Wednesday at around 5:30 p.m. Klingenberg was riding his cargo bike north on Michigan with a small group of cyclists, authorities say. Facebook posts indicate that Klingenberg and friends were heading to Oak Street Beach, which can be accessed by a path and underpass at the northeast corner of Oak and Michigan.

At the same time, a 51-year-old woman was driving a Chicago Trolley & Double Decker Co. double-decker tour bus westbound, east of Michigan, according to Officer Nicole Trainor from Police News Affairs. East of Michigan, Oak is officially called East Lake Shore Drive.

As the bus operator drove west, she ran over Klingenberg, pinning him under the bus, Trainor said. She added that a diagram of the collision on the crash report does not indicate that either the bike rider or the bus driver was turning. The cyclist was taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

Klingenberg was biking north on Michigan (yellow line), probably to access the path to Oak Street Beach (dotted line). The bus operator was heading west on East Lake Shore Drive / Oak (red line). Some witnesses said both both the cyclist and bus driver had a red, because southbound traffic on Inner Lake Shore Drive (blue line) had a left-turn signal. Note that this diagram does not necessarily indicate the exact location where the crash occurred. Original image: Google Maps

However, the crash report states, “The victim disregarded the [red] light at Oak and turned into the bus, causing the fatal collision.” If Klingenberg was heading to Oak Street Beach, he would have made a slight northeast turn at Oak Street to enter a curb ramp at the northeast corner of the intersection and access the path to the beach underpass. No charges have been filed against the bus operator.

The officer who filled out the report was clearly laying the blame for the crash on the bike rider. However, things may not be that cut-and-dried. Unlike the bus driver, Klingenberg isn’t alive to tell his side of the story.

“I have seen instances time and time again in which [Chicago Police Department] blames a cyclist for a collision when it wasn't their fault,” Jim Freeman of the bike-focused law firm FK Law (a Streetsblog Chicago sponsor) said this morning. “I guarantee when the truth comes out it won't be as simple as 'the cyclist blew the red.'"

We already have indications that the bus driver may have been at least partly at fault. The Chicago Tribune reported:

Two people who said they were in the area at the time said it appeared the bus had a red light. But one of them said Klingenberg also had a red light because southbound traffic from Inner Lake Shore Drive had a left turn light at the time.

This is the second time in seven months that a Chicago Trolley bus driver has struck and killed a vulnerable road user on Michigan Avenue. In November 2015, a 49-year-old female Chicago Trolley driver fatally struck Hiromi Hosono, 42, as she crossed Michigan in a crosswalk with the walk signal.

We’ll surely get a clearer picture of what actually happened in the Klingenberg case as more witnesses provide testimony and authorities review video of the crash. A source told me today me that the Chicago Department of Transportation has obtained traffic camera footage of the collision. I've submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to gain access to the video.

[Update 6/21/16:  When CDOT responded to my FOIA request, the department said, contrary to what the source told me, they do not have video of the collision. It turns out there are no red light or speed cams at this location. However, there is at least one other city-owned camera at this location. I have submitted another FOIA request to obtain any footage of the collision from this cam.]

In the meantime, however, local news outlets have been running pieces that assume irresponsible behavior by Klingenberg was chiefly to blame for this tragedy. And they're using that assumption as an excuse to promote the false notion that reckless biking is a major public safety threat, with no mention of the scores of Chicago traffic deaths caused each year by drivers.

Blaine Klingenberg. Photo: Facebook

Less than 24 hours after the cyclist’s death, MK Communications head Marilyn Katz published a clueless op-ed in the Chicago Tribune, calling for licensing of bike riders, supposedly for safety purposes, while griping about the bike lanes that actually help keep cyclists safe. “Klingenberg… violated the law by turning in front of and into the double-decker bus,” Katz wrote. “All of us who drive in the city know that one never knows what the cyclist next to, behind or in front of us will do. That needs to change.” Read my response to the piece here.

CBS Chicago’s Dorothy Tucker took a similar approach in a segment published Thursday called “Will Chicago Rider’s Death Shine Light on Bicycle Safety.” “The biking community is in mourning because of the fatal crash that happened on this corner yesterday,” Tucker reported from the crash site. “But some bike messengers who make their living delivering packages say the fatal crash will not change the way the operate.”

The clip shows exactly one courier, Jake Baginski, rolling through a red light on Michigan Avenue at an intersection with a side street that apparently had no cross traffic at the time. “The traffic light is clearly red,” Tucker says. “But bike messenger Jake Baginski blows right through it… This casual attitude about red lights comes just one day after bike messenger Blaine Klingenberg allegedly blew a red light and was fatally hit by a double-decker bus.” Next Tucker interviews a limo driver, who talks about she's freaked out about sharing the road with bikes.

As an ex-courier myself, I’d be the first to say that any bike rider who blasts through red lights in a way that forces pedestrians to stop in their tracks or drivers to slam on their brakes to avert a crash is being reckless and deserves to be ticketed. But that's clearly not what Baginski was doing here, and there's no conclusive evidence yet that Klingenberg -- who was described as a likeable, professional, and well-respected courier by employers -- was thoughtlessly bombing an intersection either.

All people, whether on a bicycle, on foot, or in a motor vehicle, should avoid behavior that endangers themselves or others, and all of us have the potential to act like jerks on the road. But while Katz and Tucker are using Klingenberg’s death as an excuse to fixate on misbehavior by some bike riders, they’re ignoring the fact that unpredictable, careless, and aggressive behavior by drivers is widespread, and it’s an exponentially bigger problem.

While there is no record of anyone being fatally struck by a bicyclist in Chicago, ever, 130 people were killed in crashes with motor vehicles in 2013 alone. If you’re riding a 30-pound bike, you should make sure you don’t hurt anyone. But if you’re driving a 3,000-pound car, let alone a 30,000-pound double-decker bus that has enormous potential to cause death and destruction, your responsibility to prevent crashes is that much greater.

Hopefully the video footage of Wednesday’s collision will shed light on what really happened to Blaine Klingenberg. Until then, it would be great if local news outlets would refrain from using his death as an excuse to point fingers.

I’ll leave you with an insightful comment from a Streetsblog reader that's very relevant to what’s going on in Chicago now. Reader Karen Lynn Allen nailed our society’s double standard on bicyclist/driver behavior with this post in response to an article on the bike/car debate by Streetsblog USA’s Angie Schmitt:

Yesterday I saw a bicyclist do [insert dangerous, stupid, inconsiderate, boneheaded move here] and it nearly inconvenienced me. This means all bikers better watch out because the responsible, productive, law-abiding members of this community aren’t going to tolerate this kind of of anti-social behavior from you riffraff much longer.

Yesterday I saw a car driver do [insert dangerous, stupid, inconsiderate, boneheaded move here] and kill someone!  A tragedy, but it was an accident, no one’s fault really, just one of those bad parts of living in the modern age that we all have to put up with. After all, anyone can make a mistake. It would be a shame to even suspend the driver’s license over it because they really might need it to get to work. It certainly is no reflection on me or how most people drive.

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