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Are Cyclists Safe In Santa Monica?

The Lookout News: Are Cyclists Safe In Santa Monica?

By Jason Islas
Lookout Staff

August 31, 2011 -- With the Bicycle Action Plan (BAP) – a comprehensive outline of educational and infrastructural improvements for making the city more bike friendly – only a few months away from seeking final approval by the City Council, Santa Monica is on the verge of reinventing itself as one of the premiere biking destinations in Southern California.

But a confrontation Saturday between a bicyclist and a motorist that led to the driver allegedly running the bike and its rider down is a sobering reminder that there is more to bike safety than just new bike lanes.

It also raises the question, is Santa Monica a safe city to ride in?

Deputy Director of Special Projects Lucy Dyke, one of those responsible for crafting the new bike plan, says that Santa Monica is a very safe city to ride in, but that there is always room for improvement.

“The kinds of crashes that are most common aren't even bicyclists and motorists,” she said. “But the most serious accidents involve behavioral components.”

Dyke explained that “behavioral components” mean things like drunk driving (or bicycling) and road rage. The things that contribute to these major accidents, she said, are already illegal.

Making the roads safer for bicyclists and pedestrians, said Dyke, isn't just about changing laws.

“A larger part of what we have to change is behavior,” she said. To that ends, the bike plan makes a point to prioritize education and awareness programs.

“To be a good bike plan,” Dyke said, “it has to include respect for everyone on the road.”

Respect could certainly help to curb incidents like the one that happened Saturday, but what about other hazards?

Recreation and Parks Commissioner Richard McKinnon is a bicyclist as well as an enthusiastic supporter and organizer of Bike It! Day, a semi-annual event that encourages students throughout Santa Monica to ride, walk or take the bus to school as well as educating them about the safest ways to do it.

He said that Santa Monica is a safe place to ride your bike.

“But is it as safe as it should be? The answer is no,” he said.

“There is no risk-free environment anywhere,” McKinnon continued. But he thinks that the onus is on car drivers to be more aware of bicyclists.

Yes, it's true that cyclists must still obey the rules of the road, he said, but he would like to see more signs to let people coming into Santa Monica know that they are in a bike city. He'd also like to see cops cracking down on drivers doing things like texting while driving.

As ridership increases, though, the safer riders will be, McKinnon said. As more cyclists get on the road, the more aware drivers will be and, out of necessity, they will drive more slowly, creating a friendlier environment for everyone on the roads and sidewalks.

Statistical safety is just as important as perceived safety. Cyclist and bike activist Cynthia Rose said while she certainly feels safe riding in Santa Monica, she knows not everyone does.

“We need to change perceptions of safety. We need to push toward cultural change,” Rose said. That means a change in “how seriously we take collisions and how our law enforcement reacts,” she said.

“'I didn't see him' isn't an excuse if you are both riding in the road legally,” Rose said. Drivers need to be aware and actively looking for bicyclists, she said.

Dyke agreed but added that bicyclists should be doing the same, that is trying to make eye contact with drivers and make themselves actively visible.

Aside from offering new bike lanes, she said the Bike Action Plan is about bringing about the cultural change Rose and other bicyclists hope for.

“It stands for safety and civility on the roadway,” Dyke said, and for acknowledging that pedestrians, cars and bikes have to share the road.