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    Three fatal bike accidents in five months: Santa Cruz County has reached a grim benchmark halfway through 2011. The number of cyclists killed th… Read More
    Three 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. 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 thought. Read Less
Twenty-five year old Zachary Parke died on Empire Grade in Santa Cruz after a car struck him and then fled the scene. This is his bicycle.
Bikers Beware

Inthe Wake of Fatal Accidents, How Safe Is It to Cruise Santa Cruz?

ByMichelle Fitzsimmons

Threefatal bike accidents in five months: Santa Cruz County has reached a grimbenchmark halfway through 2011.

The number of cyclists killed this year now exceeds those in all of 2009, oneof the worst years on record for county bikers.

Two of those deaths occurred last month. A vehicle struck Zachary Parke, 25, ashe rode his bike on Empire Grade in the wee hours of the morning on June 8. Thedriver fled the scene, and another cyclist found Parke's body eight hourslater.

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 wasriding the bike or walking with it in the bike lane.

Another serious accident occurred July 10, when an RV sideswiped 55-year-oldElizabeth Amaya as she was riding on Freedom Boulevard. She broke her ankle andinjured 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 acuterealization that Santa Cruz County might not be as safe to ride in as oncethought.

"The recent accidents bring up the vulnerability of cyclists on the roadto motorists," Piet Canin, the Vice President of the SustainableTransportation Group at Ecology Action, said. "There needs to be arealization that more focus needs to be put on preventative measures to makesure motorists are more careful. One moment of inattention by a motorist couldend 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 theCalifornia average, according to the state's Office of Traffic Safety.

In 2009, some 180 bicyclists were injured or killed in incidents in Santa CruzCounty, though that figure does not delineate whether a vehicle was involved.That number gave the county the highest per capita rate of reported cyclistinjuries in the state.

Cory Caletti, the Senior Transportation Planner/Bicycle Coordinator at thecounty's Regional Transportation Commission (RTC), urged the public to rememberthat the accident rating is relative to population.

"It's not relative to the number of people riding and walking," shesaid. "Santa Cruz has a higher number of people biking and walking than alot 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 didnot necessarily involve a vehicle.

"This is a county that treasures alternative transportation," ZachFriend, spokesman for the Santa Cruz Police Department, said. "It's anongoing challenge to make biking safe here."

The RTC, Caletti said, is trying to get a better handle on seasonal trendsrelating to cycling injury incidents, though that data is not available yet.

CHP Officer Sarah Jackson also attributed the high accident rating to havingmore cyclists than most other regions statewide. All year long, she said, cyclistsswarm on county roads, making no season more dangerous to ride than another.

"During the summer months, we have a lot a tourists and fare-weatherriders, and during the rest of the year there are students, from elementary ageto high school and college, riding their bikes," she said. "Driversare used to seeing high numbers of cyclists on the roads all year long."

Both Jackson and Friend stressed the imperativeness of both motorists andcyclists being aware of one another to avoid potentially tragic encountersbetween cars and bikes.

"In a perfect world," Friend said, "you'd have drivers awarethat there are others out [on the road] and cyclists would believe that theyare 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."

Differential Treatment?

Cyclists bristle at the suggestion that they flaunt the rules of the road, aconcern motorists express and that CHP officers see as a problem. However, dodrivers have as much at stake when it comes to bicycle safety?

"If a cyclists messes up," Canin said, "it's going to come backto hurt them. You're endangering your life. If a motorist messes up, they maymess up their life and potentially the life of another person. It's a differentlevel 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 alight on their bikes," Derek Johnson, the community development directorfor Capitola, said. "It's somewhat easier for people to notice bikesbreaking the law and to fixate on that, but cars are running red lights and notstopping at stop signs too. I know enforcement of the laws for cyclists is outthere."

The way Friend sees it, stones are cast by both sides.

"Traffic laws are constantly broken by both cars and cyclists," hesaid. "No one follows the laws perfectly all of the time."

Canin said that in the last decade, Ecology Action has provided 5,000 childrenand teenagers, and 2,5000 adults, with bike safety training that includeslessons on the rules of the road.

The RTC, Caletti said, also hosts bike safety training at county schools, butthat resources are limited when it comes to educating adults on safe cyclingpractices.

"Educating adults requires more of a multi-pronged approach than whatwe've been able to undertake," she said. "Everyone — motorists,cyclists, pedestrians — needs to have a better understanding as to who theother 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, "becausedriver training is very limited as to bike rights and bike behaviors."

The CHP, Jackson said, understands there are two sides to the "Share theRoad" concept and enforces the laws with motorists and cyclistsaccordingly.

"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," shesaid. "For cyclists: stop at stop signs, don't run red lights, use helmetsand 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 weremen and 26 percent were women.

Female cyclists used helmets at a rate of 54 percent, while male helmet userested at 42 percent. Jackson said the CHP found no evidence of helmets, bikelights or reflective gear at either June crash site where the male riders werekilled. The woman injured on Freedom Boulevard, however, was wearing the safetygear.

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 youngadults (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 useis on the rise, an increase they said started in 2006.

Women consistently wear helmets at a higher rate then men in every yearsurveyed. Children helmet usage rose too, from 46 percent in 2009 to 70 percentin 2010.

North County helmet use is noticeably higher than South County. Only 18 percentof riders in Watsonville wore helmet, and children use was 26 percent lowerthan in North County.

Implementing Solutions

Integratingbike needs into infrastructural development is a key component to the county'sstrategies to reduce dangers for cyclists.

The RTC is developing a new signage program that will point out shortcuts orother paths bicyclists can take that are safer to pedal down than high trafficstreets.

"It will be a way-finding mechanism so that cyclists can be routed ontoneighborhood streets or lower volume streets where either bicycle lanes existor there is less traffic," Caletti said. The RTC is working with CountyPublic Works (CPW) and cycling groups to map out preferred routes.

By creating designated bike boulevards, city planners like Johnson are hopefulthat 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 bikeand the road on that street."

Due to a push by the Santa Cruz County Supervisors, CPW is redirecting $150,000back to bike lane maintenance. The money had been designated for the creationof 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 thatnature," 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 visibleon 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, andtalking on their cell phones while driving, and laws against driving whileimpaired," he said, "but enforcement needs to go further. Publiceducation needs to go further, too. More emphasis needs to be put on theenormous 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 everyonepause and think about making sure we're all doing our part to be responsiblefor our safety on the roadways."
This article originallyappeared in the July 12, 2011 edition of The Mid-County Post. Online at http://mcpost.com/article.php?id=3636.