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What’s Causing Chicago’s Latest Wave of Cycling Deaths and Serious Crashes?

The memorial ceremony for Viriginia Murray at the crash site. Photo: Donte Tatum, Chicago Reader

[The Chicago Reader recently launched a new weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. This partnership allows Streetsblog to extend the reach of our livable streets advocacy. We syndicate a portion of the column on the day it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print. The paper hits the streets on Thursdays.]

In early June, I noted that there had been no fatal bike crashes so far this year in Chicago. "I'm crossing my fingers that this year's good luck streak continues," I wrote.

Tragically, it didn't. Since then, two people have lost their lives while biking in Chicago.

I've also heard of at least 11 collisions that occurred since June 12 that resulted in injuries, many more than usually cross my desk in a month. At least three of those incidents resulted in serious injuries.

Anecdotally, this seems to be an unusually high number of bike crashes for a 30-day period. But it's a difficult thing to prove, since collisions that don't result in serious injuries or fatalities often go unreported. And while the Illinois Department of Transportation is responsible for documenting local crashes, the agency doesn't release its findings until about two years after the fact.

So going by the anecdotal evidence, if there has indeed been an uptick in bike crashes, what factors are to blame? And what we should be doing differently to bring these numbers down?

The first crash of the recent wave to draw widespread attention was the June 15 death of 29-year-old courier Blaine Klingenberg, who was fatally struck by tour bus driver Charla A. Henry during the evening rush at Michigan and Oak.

The second fatality occurred July 1 around 9 AM, when a 28-year-old male flatbed truck driver struck 25-year-old Virginia Murray while she was riding a Divvy in Avondale. Video from a nearby gas station's security camera shows the truck was facing north on Sacramento, stopped at the light at Belmont. As Murray rode up to the right of the truck, the light changed and the driver turned east, striking her. The driver, who works for nearby AB Hardwood Flooring and Supplies, has so far been issued only a citation for not having the proper driver's license classification to drive the truck.

Until a few weeks ago Murray worked in marketing for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, a Divvy sponsor. She had been preparing to apply for graduate school in library sciences. A spokeswoman for Blue Cross described Murray as "an avid Divvy supporter, a wonderful employee, and a special person."

The first of the three crashes that resulted in serious injuries took place on June 21 at the intersection of Wilson and the Lakefront Trail. At around 7:20 PM, a 61-year-old man who has not been named by police was bicycling north on the path and was critically injured by an eastbound SUV driver as he crossed Wilson. The driver, Liliana Flores, 32, received three traffic citations.

Screen Shot 2016-07-13 at 2.57.08 PM
Nick Fox.

On the evening of June 26, Nick Fox, a popular employee of Obbie's Pizza in Garfield Ridge, was struck by two freight trains on railroad tracks near 60th and Narragansett while biking home from a church carnival. Fox, 52, suffered a broken pelvis and bleeding on the brain.

On July 3, around 9:45 AM, a 21-year-old man was biking north on the 3500 block of North Damen in Roscoe Village, when a female motorist opened her door in the man's path, causing him to crash. The door edge cut the man's neck; he was bleeding profusely when off-duty police officer Sean Hayes arrived and performed first aid to stem the hemorrhage until paramedics showed up, possibly saving the man's life. Although dooring a cyclist in Chicago carries a $1,000 fine, it appears the driver was not ticketed, according to Police News Affairs.

Bike-focused attorney Michael Keating (a Streetsblog sponsor) says his firm has received multiple requests for representation from crash survivors in recent weeks. "A simple [explanation] would be that with warmer weather there is an increase in the number of bicyclists in Chicago," he says. Cheap gasoline, and the resulting increase in driving, may be another factor. "But my sense is that many of these crashes involve a lack of respect for the bicyclist and their right to the roadway," Keating says.

He's particularly concerned about so-called "right-hook" crashes, like the one that ended Murray's life. "The reason that these types of crashes are so common is simple: the motorist does not see the bicyclist even though they have the opportunity to do so," Keating says. "The motorist typically makes the turn without ever checking for other traffic-including bicycles."

Read the rest of the article on the Reader's website.

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