Commentary

Be afraid

 

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Alaska’s safest biking zone – Chugach Mountain Front Range Tuesday/Craig Medred photo

 

A new study of cyclists riding the bike paths and streets of London found almost three out of four regularly worry motorists are out to kill them. 

 

One can only guess how much higher the number might be if a poll was conducted among cyclists in Alaska’s largest city, where some motorists consider vulnerable road-users a nuisance – at best – and where the Anchorage Police Department doesn’t much seem to care.

The official, Nixle News cycling safety advice issued  by the APD last month was this:

“Sharing can be one of the most difficult lessons we are forced to learn as kids but it’s a skill required of us for the entirety of our lives if we want to live harmoniously.  It’s summertime which means that bicyclists and motorists have to travel well together and share the streets.

“In order to obtain your driver’s license you had to pass a series of tests, so we’ll make the assumption that all drivers understand the rules they have to follow (oh come on – work with me here).  These are some of the rules that bicyclists must follow.”

What followed was a list of rules, some of them incorrectly summarized, that cyclists are supposed to follow. A cyclist could break almost every rule on the list and harm no one but herself. No mention was made of the many rules motorists could break that leave cyclists maimed or dead.

Only one word came to mind in the wake of this missive: “Children.”

Road safety

This is the time of year when children start appearing on bicycles everywhere in Alaska. Being that they are children, they are less attentive to danger than adults, or at least that used to be the case.

Some adults behind the wheels of motor vehicles now seem even more inattentive than children, possibly thanks to a long push for automotive safety that has made the modern automobile into a protective cocoon.

Yes, it is still not a good idea to run into things. Car repairs are expensive, but in anything but a high-speed, highway accident you are almost certain to walk away from the crash. So why worry?

If you need to answer that text while driving, why not? True, it’s against the law to text and drive in Alaska, but people rarely get caught. And if they do, what’s the worst that can happen?

Seventeen-year-old Alexandra Ellis was drunk and high when she ran over cyclist Jeff Dusenbury four years ago. For the crime of killing the 51-year-old husband and father, she was allowed to attend colleage before eventually spending 74 days in jail. 

The sentence pretty well reflected the attitude of Anchorage authorities and a share of the Anchorage public toward vulnerable road users. When someone runs down a vulnerable road user in Anchorage, the name of the driver usually doesn’t even make the news because, well, he or she could be embarrassed for possibly doing nothing wrong.

When the wife of then Alaska State House Minority Leader and now Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz hit and killed a pedestrian in 2007, her name didn’t make the news.

The family of the dead man, as Suzanne Downing at Must Read Alaska has reported, in fact had a hard time obtaining her name from police. It took them three weeks to discover the identity of the driver.

Not unusual

There has been a bit of a dust-up over whether Downing should even have reported the long-ago incidents, and suggestions that a political cover-up might have been involved to keep the story hidden when it happened and somehow out of the news for election cycle after election cycle.

But it’s easier to believe another theory to explain this:

The reality is that APD in general protects motorists. APD has never identified the motorist who ran over 66-year-old Leroy Blix in 2016. Blix made the mistake of trying to get from Anchorage to Eagle River on a moped, a motorized bicycle.

He was run down from behind by a sport utility vehicle and killed.

“The driver of the SUV remained on scene and was cooperative with police during the initial investigation,” APD reported. “No charges have been filed at this time as the fatal collision remains under investigation by traffic investigators with APD’s Traffic Unit.”

That is how these things are usually handled and how they end. The cases go “under investigation” and disappear.

Over the years in Anchorage, I’ve had occasion as a reporter for first the Anchorage Daily News and then AlaskaDispatch.com to revisit the investigations into several fatal, motor vehicle-bike collisions. The one thing that became clear in all of those stories was that police started from the premise the cyclist must have done something wrong, that the accident just couldn’t have happened unless that was the case.

And, in one case, the cyclist had clearly done something wrong. He tried to cross in the middle of a roadway. The driver, however, also appeared to have done things wrong in the form of speeding and drug use.

The cyclist died. The driver was never charged with anything. Outcomes such as this are not limited to Anchorage or Alaska. They seem to be something of a national norm.

“If your 13-year-old daughter bikes to school tomorrow inside a freshly painted bike lane, and a driver runs a stop sign and kills her and then says to the cop, “Gee, I so totally did not mean to do that,” that will most likely be good enough,” Daniel Duane wrote in a 2013 New York Times commentary titled simply “Is It OK to Kill Cyclists?”

“‘We do not know of a single case of a cyclist fatality in which the driver was prosecuted, except for D.U.I. or hit-and-run,” Leah Shahum, the executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, told him.

“When driver’s kill cyclists – small fines, no jail,” The Des Moines Register reported in 2016 after an examination of fatal car-bike accidents in Iowa.

“Since 2011 in Iowa, 22 bicyclists have died in collisions with cars. None of the drivers was given prison time, including one who left the scene and another who was drunk and fled,” MacKenzie Elmer reported. 

The prosecution of Ellis in Anchorage might indicate the state’s largest city is actually being more protective than Middle America, but not much.

Be afraid

There is no reason for a cyclist in Anchorage to feel any safer than a cyclist in London where 70 percent of riders confessed to sometimes suffering from paranoia due to the perceived danger. 

If you ride a bike near any road in Anchorage, and you’re not a little afraid, you’re just being foolish. Some Alaska drivers hate cyclists, and a few of these drivers hate cyclists enough they will actally try to run them off the road. Just about every cyclist I know, myself included, has had that happen.

And for every driver who hates cyclists, there is sure to be five or 10 or 50 who just don’t pay attention to bikers, hikers, runners, walkers, moose or anything else in or along the roadway.

I somewhat regularly rode the bike  up a climb from the Old Seward Highway to the base of Flattop Mountain last summer.  Aptly named Toilsome Hill Drive and Glen Alps Road are a slow, uphill grind.

There is plenty of time to watch the cars zooming down the hill from the favorite local, city-viewing area above Anchorage. One day, I counted 10 cars in a row with drivers nose down in their cell phones reading something.

This is not unusual. There is no doubt cell phones have made Anchorage cycling, and cycling and walking almost everywhere, more dangerous over the years. The response of APD has been to lecture cyclists on the rules of the road.

Why?

“….We wanted to highlight some of the major/general rules simply because it was requested by several members of the community,” explained an email from Kendra Doshier,  the new deputy communications director with APD.

She also explained she now has a big job managing all the APD news:

“Apart from being one of the liaisons between the department and traditional media, a large focus of mine is on social media content and engagement strategy. As I’ve become more acquainted with the department’s vision, goals, and relationship with the community, I’ve been able to develop a thoughtful strategy for how we can curate our content for social media, manage our Nixle alerts, communicate effectively with our community, and strategize between platforms. It’s a bit of an undertaking, but we have a great community, we have a solid, active follower base, and we have good blueprints to build from.”

Lecturing cyclists on the rules of the road was part of this brave, new blueprint.

“On our “What Not To Do Wednesday” Facebook posts,” she wrote, “road etiquette for motorists is one of the more common topics we write about. I’d say about 75 percent of the time we cover motorists. We often receive feedback from community members to ‘do one that covers cyclists’ because some folks aren’t clear on the rules, so we did the broad strokes.

“We do not encourage anyone to harass or bully anyone on the roads, so if that’s the tenor that was surmised from our Nixle, that certainly wasn’t our intention. The goal was to inform the community….”

Right.

Bad bikers

There are scofflaws riding bicycles in Anchorage. There is no doubt about that. More than 90 percent of them are probably street people, who don’t read Nixle.

Kids don’t read Nixle either. If they had, they wouldn’t have found all the rules listed by APD very helpful. The kids could have just been told PAY ATTENTION ON YOUR BIKE AT ALL TIMES AND IF IN DOUBT YIELD TO TRAFFIC BECAUSE PEOPLE IN CARS AND TRUCKS ARE TRYING TO KILL YOU!

APD, meanwhile, might not have intended to encourage bullies, but that’s about all the agency did by responding to demands to lean on cyclists and then listing a bunch of rules cyclists are supposed to follow, including one that says “when a bicycle lane is present a bicyclist must use it and not share a lane of travel with vehicles.”

No such law exists. The Anchorage Municipal Code says that cyclists must “ride as near to the right edge of the roadway or trail or pathway as practicable,” and then lists six specific  “situations when it is unreasonable or unsafe to do so.”

Number 5 covers the situation “when it is necessary for a cyclist to fully occupy one traffic lane while waiting to cross an intersection in order to increase the cyclist’s visibility to drivers of other vehicles.”

As someone who used to wait far right at intersections when making a right turn only to be twice knocked down by vehicles making right turns with the driver never bothering to look anywhere but to the left for oncoming traffic at the intersection, I now either take the lane at red lights to avoid getting clobbered, or get off the road altogether.

If I’m turning right, it’s usually the latter; and if I’m going straight ahead, I’ll usually favor the lane far enough to the left that anyone coming behind and wanting to make a right turn has room to sneak past.

And, of course, several times every summer there’s some driver with nothing better to do who starts yelling, “Get out of the road. You need to be in the bike lane! Get in the bike lane asshole!”

Where do they get this idea? Well, apparently from APD which, sadly, seems to harbor some of that anti-bicycle prejudice common to so many law enforcement agencies in this nation. Exactly how bad is it here?

Well, consider this:

Last Wednesday was Bike to School Day, and APD’s Nixle News service made note of it. The heads-up came at two minutes before 7 on the night before.

“Tomorrow is Bike to School Day! Watch out for munchkins on wheels,” APD said. 

How many drivers was APD expecting to reach post dinner-time on the day before the event in a world where the heavy, evening internet traffic is generated by people streaming media?

There is no specific data easily available on the hours of highest viewership for Nixle messages. But for Facebook, the best times all come before 3 p.m.; for Twitter and LinkedIn all before 6 p.m., for Instagram, all before 5 p.m.; and for Google+ all before 1 p.m. 

Seven p.m. on a Tuesday would be a good time to post something you don’t want read, but maybe that was the idea.

CORRECTION: An early version of this story misstated Alexandra Ellis’s age when she killed Jeff Dusenbury.

 

 

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4 replies »

  1. I’m a life-long cyclist and learned quickly after to moving to Anchorage to stay off the roads. There are aggressive drivers who are essentially bullies but the real problem is the cell phone. The phone is a disaster for cyclists and pedestrians. Worse than drunks. It’s fortunate that Anchorage has such excellent bike paths. We all need to work to keep them safe and especially to get all motorized traffic off them. The only cops that will be sympathetic to cyclists are cops who themselves are riders. Sadly, cyclists themselves bear a part of the burden for this. Motorists these days assume the cyclist is going to blow thru the stop sign so they stop when they have the right of way. That is not working in our favor.

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  2. The whole texting law is ridiculous. And it’s mostly unenforceable. Many look down at their phones and tap it to make a voice call. That’s not texting, but it’s just as dangerous an activity. Better is to do what many states have done (see link below). And that is to completely ban the use of mobile devices while driving. This makes it easier to enforce the law. If a video is taken by a law officer of a person in a vehicle holding up a phone in front of them … the person is caught. They can’t say “I wasn’t texting, I was just calling my sick grandmother.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Restrictions_on_cell_phone_use_while_driving_in_the_United_States

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  3. Bikes make a lot of sense here in Kodiak because everything is fairly close. That said it’s still pretty dangerous. Two friends that ride exclusively have both been knocked down multiple times. Thanks for writing this.

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  4. Police should set up “text traps”, just like speed traps. Hand out tickets until people change behavior. On another note, I’ve been regularly yelled at by a pedestrian while I was riding on the sidewalk, even though that sidewalk is posted as “permiitted to ride” for bicycles.

    Liked by 1 person

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