Three years ago, a series of tragedies could have marred Portland, Oregon cycling forever. Instead, the city found a way to move forward.
By Bob Mionske
Three years ago this month, Portland, Oregon was rocked by a tragic death. On October 11, 2007, after taking a lunch break at her apartment, 19-year-old Tracey Sparling, a student at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, was riding her bike back to campus. A few blocks from the college, she stopped at a red light. She was in the bike lane. To her left, also stopped, was a cement truck. When the light changed, the truck driver, who was unaware that Sparling was in the bike lane next to his truck, turned right, his truck cutting an arc across the bike lane. Sparling was knocked from her bike and killed.
Portland’s cyclists were still grieving when, 11 days later, tragedy struck again. On October 22, Brett Jarolimek, a popular local racer and bike shop employee—and a talented artist who had graduated from the same art college Sparling had been attending—was riding downhill in the bike lane when he was passed by a garbage truck. At the bottom of the hill, the truck stopped, preparing to make a right turn. As Jarolimek approached the truck, the driver appeared to be yielding to him, but then, suddenly, the driver made his right turn, too late for Jarolimek to stop. Jarolimek, 31, was killed instantly. The truck driver, whose damaged mirror was held on with a bungee cord, never saw Jarolimek.
Portland’s cyclists were shocked by these deaths. But their grief was mixed with outrage at the response of the Portland Police Bureau, which seemed to be bending over backwards to absolve the drivers of any responsibility for these deaths. Yes, both drivers had not seen the cyclists before they turned into them, but under Oregon law, they were required to look before turning—and the police were refusing to issue citations to the drivers. Their reasoning: When the cement truck driver turned into Tracey Sparling, police determined that “there’s just no way he could have seen her,” because she had been stopped next to his truck, in his blind spot. That explanation didn’t quite address the question on everybody’s minds—“Why didn’t the driver look before turning?”—but police attempted to address that doubt when they declined to cite the garbage truck driver who turned into Brett Jarolimek. As police explained, “…yielding the right of way, and determining whether a traffic violation has occurred, comes down to a matter of perception. Basically, the driver has to perceive he has to yield the right of way.” However, if they thought that would calm the furor, they were wrong. They were also wrong on the law.
The problem lay in the traffic investigators’ interpretation of the law. In their view, if the driver did not intentionally violate right of way, or just didn’t bother to look, there was no violation. If the driver simply said the magic words “I didn’t see him,” the police would not cite the driver. However, there was no such intent requirement in the law, no such absolution for not bothering to look. If a cyclist (or a motorist) runs a stop sign, and says, “I didn’t see it,” the cyclist can still be ticketed; there is no requirement in the law that the cyclist had to have intended to violate the law. If a motorist (or a cyclist) is speeding, and says, “I didn’t see the speed limit sign,” the motorist can still be ticketed; the police don’t have to prove that the motorist intended to speed. Similarly, a citation for “failure to yield” does not require proof of an intent to break the law. It is the act, regardless of intent, that is prohibited.
But in the autumn of 2007, Portland police seemed determined to shift the blame away from the drivers involved. And then, almost unbelievably, it happened again—on November 6, another cyclist was right-hooked, at the exact same spot where Jarolimek had been killed just ten days before. The cyclist, Siobhan Doyle, was more fortunate; she survived the crash, although she sustained a broken arm and other serious injuries. And once again, Portland cyclists were outraged by the police response. Police refused to investigate the collision, because Doyle did not suffer trauma-level injuries—and because they refused to investigate, the driver was not cited. The Police claimed they did not have the manpower to investigate collisions resulting in non-trauma-level injuries. But when they refused to investigate the collision that resulted in Doyle’s injuries—despite eyewitness accounts that the motorist had been driving recklessly just prior to colliding with Doyle—they were not saying that policy prohibited them from investigating. Instead, they were just saying that they were choosing not to investigate—even though they were standing right there at the scene.
Remarkably, out of this string of tragedies and botched investigations, Portland pulled itself together and found a way forward. First, the city temporarily closed the right turn where Jarolimek and Doyle had been right-hooked—and later, the closure was made permanent.
The intersection where Tracey Sparling lost her life had already been identified by the city as one of several known safety hazards for cyclists. Hoping to avert another tragedy, the city responded by introducing a new-to-Portland type of infrastructure—the green “bike box.” The idea behind the green bike box was to place cyclists ahead of right-turning drivers. At intersections with bike boxes, drivers must stop behind a white line that is set back from the intersection. The space between this white line and the beginning of the intersection is painted green, and is reserved for the exclusive use of cyclists. This places cyclists directly in front of right-turning motorists when they are stopped at a light. The bike lane adjacent to the bike box, and proceeding through the intersection, is also painted green. Regardless of whether a cyclist chooses to ride into the bike box, or instead chooses to remain in the bike lane, the cyclist is still positioned ahead of right-turning drivers. With the infrastructure positioning cyclists ahead of drivers, the magic words “I didn’t see him” lose all credibility.
The first bike box was rolled out on March 17, 2008. Within two weeks, Portland had installed another two bike boxes, and by July 3, Portland had installed its eighth bike box, at the intersection where Sparling lost her life. Three years later, a total of 12 bike boxes have been installed at high-risk intersections, and the city has recently unveiled plans to install 14 more bike boxes.
So do they work? Increasingly, the answer appears to be a resounding “Yes!” On the heels of that tragic autumn of 2007, there were no cyclist fatalities in Portland in 2008. Since then, there have been some cyclist fatalities in Portland—but there hasn’t been a single right-hook fatality at any bike box. Moreover, a study recently conducted by the Initiative for Bicycle and Pedestrian Innovation at Portland State University has confirmed that bike boxes work. Researchers found that both motorists and cyclists exhibit high rates of compliance and understanding about bike boxes, with motorists exhibiting an increase in the rate of yielding, and both motorists and cyclists indicating that they perceive the intersections to be safer with the bike boxes installed.
The new bike boxes were the most visible response to that tragic autumn of 2007, but they weren’t the only response. In early January of 2008, the Portland Police Bureau announced its final decisionon the disposition of the Sparling and Jarolimek fatalities; the driver of the cement truck that hit Tracey Sparling was cited for failure to yield, while they declined to cite the driver of the garbage truck that hit Brett Jarolimek for the same violation. The families of both cyclists later filed civil suits against the companies involved.
The most important police decision, however, was a change in Police Bureau policy following Siobhan Doyle’s non-fatal collision with a reckless driver. In January of 2008, the Portland Police Bureau began directing officers to investigate any collisions that result in the medical transport of a “vulnerable roadway user,” which is defined under Oregon law to include pedestrians, cyclists and others. And although the police had refused to investigate Doyle’s collision, and thus, had failed to cite the driver involved, the driver was nevertheless prosecuted, by Doyle herself, because of a law that is unique to Oregon. Despite these positive developments, there remains one looming challenge—to my knowledge, the Portland Police Bureau has never revised its erroneous interpretation of Oregon’s statute requiring drivers to yield to cyclists in a bike lane.
Perhaps the most courageous response, however, and the most poignant as well, came from the Pacific Northwest College of Art. Despite having lost one of its students and a beloved alumnus within the space of a week and a half, the college and its Dean of Student Services Michael Hall continued their efforts to make cycling a safe and viable means of transportation for their student body. It would have been easy for PNCA to take the easy way out and discourage the use of bikes; instead, Dean Hall demonstrated true leadership and compassion for the students under his care.
Because of the courageous leadership of people like Dean Hall, and then-Comissioner (and now Mayor)Sam Adams, and Roger Geller and Greg Raisman of the Portland Bureau of Transportation, Portland found a way forward through the tragic deaths in the fall of 2007, and now, three years later, cyclists and cycling have continued to thrive in a city that is now a little bit safer for its two-wheeled citizens.
Research and drafting by Rick Bernardi, J.D.