What can we learn from the tragic bike-pedestrian crash that injured Meilani Francis?

Meilani Francis
Meilani Francis

Content warning: This post describes an injury to a child.

Streetsblog Chicago typically doesn’t do writeups of injury crash cases. However, the case of Meilani Francis, 6, who was sadly struck and critically injured last week on a sidewalk by a 16-year-old boy on an electric Divvy bike-share cycle, deserves special attention.

Bicycles are vehicles that can do a lot of good in the world, by reducing congestion and pollution; improving mobility and saving money for residents; and contributing to better physical and mental health. But this incident is a reminder that, like any vehicle, bikes must be used responsibly, with regard for the safety of others.

However, this appears to be the only reported case of a critical Chicago bike-pedestrian injury crash in the past decade, and possibly in modern history. That reaffirms biking is an exponentially safer mode than driving in terms of potential danger for people walking. And we can make it even more safe for all concerned if we build a connected network of physically protected bike lanes, so everyone can feel comfortable biking in the street.

The crash case

According to police, on Thursday, June 30, at about 4:10 p.m., the teen was riding the e-bike east on the south sidewalk of the 4200 block of Fullerton Avenue in the Hermosa neighborhood, just east of Keeler Avenue. 16 is the minimum age to check out a Divvy. Riding on the sidewalk is illegal in Chicago for people 12 and older. However, Fullerton is a high-speed four-lane street with no bike lanes in this location.

This section of Fullerton Avenue has four travel lanes plus turn lanes. Meilan was struck on the sidewalk on the right side of this image. Photo: Google Maps
Looking east on the 4200 block of West Fullerton Avenue. This section of Fullerton Avenue has four travel lanes plus turn lanes. Meilani was struck on the sidewalk on the right side of this image. Photo: Google Maps

The traffic crash report narrative says that Meilani suddenly ran out of her aunt Kayla Corral’s apartment building because she “was very excited to see her father” on the sidewalk and didn’t notice the boy approaching on the bike.

“She threw her arms out and said, ‘Daddy!’ to go give him a hug on the sidewalk, and she ran out to the sidewalk right here and that’s when the guy came and hit her and dragged her all the way to the bus stop,” Corral told ABC Chicago. “He hit her really hard and then she got caught up in his wheels, and she was stuck and he dragged her over there. She finally got untangled and he was just looking back, saw her on the floor and just kept going when we were waving him down.”

According to the crash report, Meilani’s injuries included abrasions to her knees and right shoulder, as well as belly pain. She was taken to Community First Hospital, where she was initially listed in fair condition. But doctors detected internal bleeding, so she was transfered to Lurie Children’s Hospital and listed in critical condition. As of Sunday, she was still recovering at the hospital, and her family wasn’t sure when she would be released, ABC reported.

“I just don’t get how somebody could do that to a kid and just keep going, and just not stop and wait to see if they’re okay,” Corral told ABC. She said a police officer confronted the boy a couple blocks from the collision site.

According to the crash report, the teen told police “he was nervous and fled the scene because [Meilani’s] father saw what happened and approached him aggressively and yelling.” That’s an understandable reaction from a father who just saw his little girl get struck. The boy was not cited.

As of Sunday, Meilani was still recovering at the hospital, and her family wasn’t sure when she would be released, ABC reported. Let’s keep her in our thoughts, and wish her a full and fast recovery.

Takeaways from this incident

Again, this sad case is a reminder that teens and adults should avoid riding bikes on Chicago sidewalks, which is illegal. If they feel they have no choice but to do so, they must ride slowly, keep a lookout for pedestrians, including small children, and be prepared to stop abruptly if a person appears in their path.

However, before any local media outlets run op-eds warning the public about a bicycle menace based on this case, let’s note that this incident is the exception to the rule that critical bike-pedestrian collisions are extremely rare in Chicago. I’ve been tracking pedestrian and bike crash cases in this city for about a decade, and this is the first time I’ve seen a report of such a case. Google searches haven’t turned up any other such incidents in recent decades.

That’s not surprising, when you consider that even a relatively heavy electric Divvy bike weighs only about 70 pounds, which is roughly one-fiftieth of the weight of an average car. And while e-Divvies make it easy to ride “fast,” they’re still capped at 20 mph, well below Chicago’s default speed limit of 30. Moreover, alderpersons are currently trying to pass an ordinance that would allow drivers to do 39 in 30 zones, a deadly speed, without fear of speed camera tickets.

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Rafi Cardenas, Lily Shambrook, and Ja’Lon James.

June was a tragic reminder of the huge danger reckless and negligent drivers pose to Chicago children, and all other residents. Motorists struck and killed four kids on foot, scooter, and bike last month: Rafi Cardenas, 2; Lily Shambrook, 3; and Ja’Lon James, 11, and Joshua Avina-Luna, 15.

And here are a few driver-involved crashes from around the time Meilani was struck.

It’s clear that when it comes to traffic safety, any hazards posed by bike riders who disobey traffic rules pale in comparison to the epidemic of traffic violence inflicted by motorists.

But obviously Meilani’s case proves teens and adults riding bikes on sidewalks can endanger pedestrians. So how do we get people to bike in the street instead?

It’s likely that the boy who struck Meilani was riding on the sidewalk because he didn’t feel safe riding in the roadway due to Fullerton’s high-speed, bike-hostile layout. The solution is to install bike lanes with robust physical protection and separation from drivers, so that riding in the street feels as comfortable as cycling on a bike path. Protected lanes also help keep people on foot and in motor vehicles safer by shortening pedestrian crossing distances and encouraging safer driving speeds.

A potential layout for Fullerton near the crash site with raised bike lanes. Image: Jacob Peters via Street Mix
A potential layout for Fullerton near the crash site with raised bike lanes an an island bus station. Image: Jacob Peters via Streetmix

“Protected bike lanes would’ve most likely prevented this tragic and totally avoidable crash,” noted the person behind the Clark Street Bike Lane Twitter account. “PBLs are a win for peds, drivers and bikers.”

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