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Reckless Drivers Kill Four Cyclists, Trib Warns Bike Riders to Be More Careful

A memorial to Lisa Kuivinen, at the site where a truck driver swerved into the bike lane and killed her. Photo: John Greenfield

Yesterday, in response to four recent Chicago bike fatalities apparently caused by reckless drivers, the Tribune ran a well-meaning but wrongheaded editorial that largely puts the onus for creating safer streets on people who bike.

It’s clear the editorial writer or writers were moved by the deaths of Blaine Klingenberg, Virginia Murray, Lisa Kuivinen, and Francisco Cruz. And the article is certainly an improvement from the irresponsible anti-bike coverage we’ve seen from the Tribune in the past. Credit for that likely goes to the paper’s new transportation reporter Mary Wisniewski, who sometimes gets around on two wheels herself.

The article begins on a note of empathy for people who bike:

Bikers jostle for position and dodge hazards — construction zones, ripped-up pavement, oblivious motorists. As they maneuver streets and sidewalks, they know danger can loom at any moment. A car door opens unexpectedly. A motorist swerves. Pedestrians stride into the bike path without a glance.

However, the Tribune next cites statistics that suggest that as more people are biking on Chicago streets, cycling is becoming more dangerous, when that’s not the case. They note that the number of reported bike/motor vehicle crashes in the city increased by 27 percent between 2005 and 2014, to 1,663 collisions.

However, during that period, the rate of bike commuting in Chicago was skyrocketing. According to the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey, bike mode share in the city grew from 0.7 percent in 2005 to 1.7 percent in 2014 – a whopping 143 percent increase.

So while the number of crashes has increased in recent years, the crash rate has actually gone down significantly. Along with the installation of more and better bike lanes during that period, this improvement can be credited to the “safety in numbers” factor: When there are more cyclists on the streets, motorists are more likely to notice them and drive carefully around them.

Still, any life-changing or fatal bike crash is one too many. To prevent more tragedies like the four biker deaths that took place in the space of roughly two months this summer, the Tribune provides the commonsense advice that both cyclists and drivers should travel mindfully. “That means obeying traffic lights, watching for pedestrians, respecting other [road users] — whether they're in an Escalade or on a fixie.”

Maypole and Pulaski in West Garfield Park, where a cargo van driver fatally struck Francisco Cruz and fled the scene. Photo: John Greenfield

But the Trib goes on to suggest that irresponsible behavior by bike riders is the main cause of fatal crashes. “Some [people on bikes] may think they shouldn't have to obey the same rules of the road as motorists,” they write. “Some don't appear to be obeying any rules except survival of the fastest.”

It’s true that in the Klingenberg case, some witnesses said the courier ran a red light at Oak and Michigan. But others say the double-decker tour bus driver who killed him also blew a red and failed to hit the brakes before striking him, which suggests she wasn’t paying attention.

Murray was fatally struck at Belmont and Sacramento by a flatbed truck driver, who police say didn’t have the proper license to be driving the vehicle. It also appears the trucker didn’t use his turn signal and failed to look right before making a right turn – also in violation of the law.

Kuivinen was riding legally in a highly visible green-painted bike lane at 874 North Milwaukee when another flatbed truck driver fatally struck her from behind while veering into the bike lane to make a right turn.

And Cruz was riding with traffic on Pulaski when he was run over by a cargo van driver who failed to yield while making a left turn onto Maypole. The motorist then fled the scene and has not yet been apprehended.

In each case, the tragedy was mostly or solely caused by dangerous behavior by people driving. And yet the majority of scolding for bad behavior and admonishments to use caution in the editorial are directed towards people on bikes.

While drivers love to complain about lawbreaking by cyclists, it’s clear that speeding, running of stoplights and stop signs, and other forms of reckless driving are widespread in Chicago. For example a Ravenswood Manor resident recently posted a video that shows the vast majority of drivers at Wilson and Francisco don’t observe the stop signs.

The Trib editorial implies that they understand that reckless driving is exponentially more dangerous than lawbreaking by cyclists. “Cars do outweigh the average bicycle by a couple of thousand points at least,” they acknowledge. But rather than call for increased ticketing of drivers who blow reds or speed, the Tribune has led the charge against automated traffic cameras, which have been proven to save lives.

Simply exhorting bike riders and drivers to travel more responsibly, while putting most of the burden on cyclists, is not the solution to preventing bike fatalities. As the Active Transportation Alliance’s Jim Merrell recently wrote, we already know what the real solutions are. We need more protected bike lanes, better enforcement of driving laws, universal bike education, and for the city to adopt a Vision Zero strategy for eliminating all traffic deaths.

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