the Wake of Fatal Accidents, How Safe Is It to Cruise Santa Cruz?
fatal bike accidents in five months: Santa Cruz County has reached a grim
benchmark halfway through 2011.
The number of cyclists killed this year now exceeds those in all of 2009, one
of the worst years on record for county bikers.
Two of those deaths occurred last month. A vehicle struck Zachary Parke, 25, as
he rode his bike on Empire Grade in the wee hours of the morning on June 8. The
driver fled the scene, and another cyclist found Parke's body eight hours
A car hit Noel Hamilton just after 10 p.m. on June 27, killing the 31-year-old.
Hamilton had a beach cruiser with him, but it is not clear whether he was
riding the bike or walking with it in the bike lane.
Another serious accident occurred July 10, when an RV sideswiped 55-year-old
Elizabeth Amaya as she was riding on Freedom Boulevard. She broke her ankle and
injured her calf when she fell.
As was the case with both of the June fatalities, the driver fled the scene.
Devastation has seeped into the cycling community, along with an acute
realization that Santa Cruz County might not be as safe to ride in as once
"The recent accidents bring up the vulnerability of cyclists on the road
to motorists," Piet Canin, the Vice President of the Sustainable
Transportation Group at Ecology Action, said. "There needs to be a
realization that more focus needs to be put on preventative measures to make
sure motorists are more careful. One moment of inattention by a motorist could
end the life of a cyclist or a pedestrian."
Above the State Accident Average
The county's rate of 74 bike accidents per 100,000 residents is double the
California average, according to the state's Office of Traffic Safety.
In 2009, some 180 bicyclists were injured or killed in incidents in Santa Cruz
County, though that figure does not delineate whether a vehicle was involved.
That number gave the county the highest per capita rate of reported cyclist
injuries in the state.
Cory Caletti, the Senior Transportation Planner/Bicycle Coordinator at the
county's Regional Transportation Commission (RTC), urged the public to remember
that the accident rating is relative to population.
"It's not relative to the number of people riding and walking," she
said. "Santa Cruz has a higher number of people biking and walking than a
lot of regions of the state."
According to the Regional 9-1-1 Call Center, between July 6, 2010 and July 6,
2011, 140 calls came in involving injury incidents with a bicycle. These did
not necessarily involve a vehicle.
"This is a county that treasures alternative transportation," Zach
Friend, spokesman for the Santa Cruz Police Department, said. "It's an
ongoing challenge to make biking safe here."
The RTC, Caletti said, is trying to get a better handle on seasonal trends
relating to cycling injury incidents, though that data is not available yet.
CHP Officer Sarah Jackson also attributed the high accident rating to having
more cyclists than most other regions statewide. All year long, she said, cyclists
swarm on county roads, making no season more dangerous to ride than another.
"During the summer months, we have a lot a tourists and fare-weather
riders, and during the rest of the year there are students, from elementary age
to high school and college, riding their bikes," she said. "Drivers
are used to seeing high numbers of cyclists on the roads all year long."
Both Jackson and Friend stressed the imperativeness of both motorists and
cyclists being aware of one another to avoid potentially tragic encounters
between cars and bikes.
"In a perfect world," Friend said, "you'd have drivers aware
that there are others out [on the road] and cyclists would believe that they
are a part of the road and that they have to follow the laws — which they do —
then I think you'd greatly reduce the number of incidents."
Cyclists bristle at the suggestion that they flaunt the rules of the road, a
concern motorists express and that CHP officers see as a problem. However, do
drivers have as much at stake when it comes to bicycle safety?
"If a cyclists messes up," Canin said, "it's going to come back
to hurt them. You're endangering your life. If a motorist messes up, they may
mess up their life and potentially the life of another person. It's a different
level of danger."
Others see the right level of enforcement of the laws for cyclists.
"I've seen cyclists pulled over for running stop signs or not having a
light on their bikes," Derek Johnson, the community development director
for Capitola, said. "It's somewhat easier for people to notice bikes
breaking the law and to fixate on that, but cars are running red lights and not
stopping at stop signs too. I know enforcement of the laws for cyclists is out
The way Friend sees it, stones are cast by both sides.
"Traffic laws are constantly broken by both cars and cyclists," he
said. "No one follows the laws perfectly all of the time."
Canin said that in the last decade, Ecology Action has provided 5,000 children
and teenagers, and 2,5000 adults, with bike safety training that includes
lessons on the rules of the road.
The RTC, Caletti said, also hosts bike safety training at county schools, but
that resources are limited when it comes to educating adults on safe cycling
"Educating adults requires more of a multi-pronged approach than what
we've been able to undertake," she said. "Everyone — motorists,
cyclists, pedestrians — needs to have a better understanding as to who the
other people using the roads are."
Caletti believes drivers also need to be included in the solution.
"We need to find ways to educate motorists," she added, "because
driver training is very limited as to bike rights and bike behaviors."
The CHP, Jackson said, understands there are two sides to the "Share the
Road" concept and enforces the laws with motorists and cyclists
"We try to get the message out for motorists to drive in a safe manner:
don't go into bike lanes before you need to, don't tailgate cyclists," she
said. "For cyclists: stop at stop signs, don't run red lights, use helmets
and lights and reflective gear."
Tracking Bicyclists' Habits
Just how closely do county cyclists adhere to the laws laid out for them?
The county's Health Services Agency (HSA) conducts an annual Bicycle Survey,
observing cyclists' habits at 41 locations in Santa Cruz County.
In their 2010 survey, HSA observed 2,796 bicyclists. Seventy-four percent were
men and 26 percent were women.
Female cyclists used helmets at a rate of 54 percent, while male helmet use
rested at 42 percent. Jackson said the CHP found no evidence of helmets, bike
lights or reflective gear at either June crash site where the male riders were
killed. The woman injured on Freedom Boulevard, however, was wearing the safety
The study found that 68 percent of cyclists stopped at stop signs and lights,
and 88 percent of the cyclists rode with traffic on the right side of the road.
However, the survey noted that stop sign/light stoppage declined for young
adults (18-24 year olds) from 76 percent in 2009 to 68 percent in 2010.
Comparing the 2010 survey to 2009 report, HSA concluded that county helmet use
is on the rise, an increase they said started in 2006.
Women consistently wear helmets at a higher rate then men in every year
surveyed. Children helmet usage rose too, from 46 percent in 2009 to 70 percent
North County helmet use is noticeably higher than South County. Only 18 percent
of riders in Watsonville wore helmet, and children use was 26 percent lower
than in North County.
bike needs into infrastructural development is a key component to the county's
strategies to reduce dangers for cyclists.
The RTC is developing a new signage program that will point out shortcuts or
other paths bicyclists can take that are safer to pedal down than high traffic
"It will be a way-finding mechanism so that cyclists can be routed onto
neighborhood streets or lower volume streets where either bicycle lanes exist
or there is less traffic," Caletti said. The RTC is working with County
Public Works (CPW) and cycling groups to map out preferred routes.
By creating designated bike boulevards, city planners like Johnson are hopeful
that the relationship between drivers and cyclists can improve.
"Drivers will grow accustomed to seeing cyclists being on the road,"
he said. "The signs will help to define the relationship between the bike
and the road on that street."
Due to a push by the Santa Cruz County Supervisors, CPW is redirecting $150,000
back to bike lane maintenance. The money had been designated for the creation
of a crosswalk in Watsonville along Highway 152.
"The money will be used for replacing signs, fixing pavement, restriping,
fixing slip outs where we don't have a full bike lane, things of that
nature," said Jack Sohriakoff, a senior civil engineer at CPW.
The funds, which will bring the county's bike lane maintenance budget from
$34,000 to $184,000, without creating any new bike lanes.
As the county plots alternative routes and ways to make cyclists more visible
on area roads, advocates like Canin would like to see changes at another level.
"There are laws in place to keep people from texting and driving, and
talking on their cell phones while driving, and laws against driving while
impaired," he said, "but enforcement needs to go further. Public
education needs to go further, too. More emphasis needs to be put on the
enormous responsibility a person takes when they get behind a steering wheel."
All road users, however, have a role to play.
"The two recent accidents," Johnson said, "really make everyone
pause and think about making sure we're all doing our part to be responsible
for our safety on the roadways."
This article originally
appeared in the July 12, 2011 edition of The Mid-County Post. Online at http://mcpost.com/article.php?id=3636.