BOISE, ID – On the day an Anchorage secondary student was knocked off his bike and killed at an Anchorage intersection, I was running stop signs and jumping through red lights in this Lower 48 city.
Because it’s both cycle-friendlier and safer to get clear of intersections quickly if possible, and because Idaho long ago recognized this fact.
“Idaho today has the third-best safety record in terms of bicyclist fatalities per 10,000 bicycle commuters in the United States based upon fatality and commuter data from 2011-2015,” according to The League of American Bicyclists. “This is despite spending fewer federal transportation funds on biking and walking than all but three states.”
Now, I don’t know what happened in the Anchorage accident, and I’m not even going to try to guess. It could be the victim is wholly or partly to blame or it could be otherwise.
What I do know, because I long ago learned it in Anchorage, is that the most dangerous place for a cyclist to ride in Alaska’s largest city is in or near an intersection. I’ve been knocked down several times in intersections because I followed the law.
Being able to minimize the time spent around them in this city feels a lot safer.
How exactly the Idaho stop law contributes to safety, if indeed it does, has not been well studied. The data could simply reflect some strange correlation. But one of the first things you notice when you ride here is the noticeably greater tolerance of motorists for cyclists.
Whether or not this has anything to do with Idaho enacting a law to stifle the hostility motorists seem to feel toward the idea of cyclists beating traffic by skipping stop-signs on quiet streets or jumping traffic lights at empty intersections is unclear.
But the difference in attitude is not.
Cycling is obviously better supported in this notoriously conservative state than in Anchorage, the most liberal part of Alaska. The network of marked bike trails is better than in Anchorage, but where there are no such trails – where those “share the road” signs appear to warn cyclists they are about to take their life in their hands on a road with limited or no shoulders – you quickly learn that Idaho drivers understand the meaning of the word “share.”
Caught behind a bike, they delay passing until they can safely use the opposite lane not just to get past but for a significant distance in front. There are none of those graze-the-cyclist-with-the-wing-mirror passes all too common in Alaska’s largest city.
Momentarily lost here and forced to consult my smartphone for mapping directions, I even discovered it isn’t a good idea to stop on the edge of an intersection to do this, or at least it’s not a good idea if you are at all polite.
When I did this, a man in a Jeep seeing me stopped, thinking I was preparing to cross, stopped when he had the right-of-way and waved me through. When I tried to resist with a hand signal suggesting he go first, he signaled no and waved me across again.
In 30 years of cycling Anchorage, nothing even close to this has ever happened.
You don’t, in fact, have to be a long-time bike commuter in Alaska’s largest city to discover that even if you have the right-of-way in an intersection, you better not count on a motorist agreeing because even the smallest of cars outweigh the fattest of cyclists by hundreds of pounds. And a lot of Anchorage drivers appear of the belief that motor vehicles have the right-of-way over bicyclists no matter whether they are driving straight through an intersection or turning across it.
For those unfamiliar with the rules for intersections, you can find them here.
With that said, it is worth noting that almost 70 percent of fatal bicycle accidents in the period 2014 to 2016 happened in urban areas, according to the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, and of those about 44 percent – 720 of 1,651 – happened at intersections.
Given that most cycling miles are ridden between intersections, those numbers represent a problem that fits with my history as an Anchorage bicycle commuter.
Experience has taught me that if there is a motor vehicle within striking distance, it’s a bad idea to enter an intersection now unless you are absolutely confident a driver has seen you, and even is that no sure thing. I once ended up on the hood of the car of a woman turning left across the intersection into the crosswalk where I was pushing my bike.
I looked at her before entering the intersection. I was sure she was looking at me. Obviously she wasn’t given that her reaction on getting out of the car was to ask “where did you come from?”
Bikes – even motorcycles which are bigger and noisier – are largely invisible to a significant number of drivers for a variety of reasons well-detailed in a Road & Track story by Jack Baruth aptly titled “Why You Don’t ‘See’ Motorcycles on the Road.”
This invisibility only becomes more of an issue in places with fewer two wheelers of any sort on the road.
Because you “don’t expect to see a motorcycle or pedestrian during a certain part of your morning commute, your brain will often ignore a motorcycle or pedestrian right in front of you, particularly if they aren’t moving sideways across your field of vision,” Baruth wrote.
‘So the driver pulls out and BAM it’s a (Suzuki) GSXR-1000 in the door and at least one person who will wind up either dead or crippled. And the driver will tell the cop, ‘I didn’t see him.’ And the cop will chalk it up to the Suzuki simply moving too quickly or to the driver being inattentive. But there truly is that third possibility: The driver looked right at the Suzuki but failed to truly ‘see’ him.
“This sort of thing happens with bicycles and pedestrians as well, of course, but it doesn’t happen nearly as often because bikes and people tend to move slowly compared to a motorcycle.”
Not always slow
Don’t tell one-time Anchorage triathlete Judy Abrahams that bikes move slowly. In 2006, she was speeding downhill on Rabbit Creek Road where some cyclists can approach the 45 mph speed limit when a car pulled out in front of her. There was no time to stop. She was seriously injured in the ensuing collision and ended up losing a leg.
The Anchorage Police Department chalked the accident up to her traveling so fast the driver didn’t see her, and apparently collisions caused by a motorist being unable to see a two-wheeler are, well, just “accidents.”
Speed can probably compound the problem of invisibility, but my experience in Alaska has been more that people don’t see bikes because they don’t expect to see bikes.
That changes in a place like this where about 8,000 people are reported to be on their bikes commuting to work every day, and where it is common to see people hauling groceries home from the store that way or otherwise using bikes for general chores.
The Idaho Stop helps ensure they spend the minimum amount of time around intersections, the one most dangerous place on the road for cyclists.
Along with being hit crossing them, I’ve been sideswiped by a truck turning right on red while stopped at them. Luckily, when it knocked me over, I didn’t end up under the rear wheels. The truck, of course, just kept going.
I did learn that if you are using designated bike lanes on roadways in Anchorage, it is best to get up on the curb at intersections if there is a red light.
Anchorage has made me an extremely cautious cyclist who tries to avoid city roads with frequent intersections and especially “bike trails” with frequent intersections paralleling the road as on Lake Otis Boulevard.
The only safe thing to do on those trails is slow down to a near stop at every intersection because motorists almost never stop at the bike trail-road intersection. They drive right through it.
As a cyclist, I long ago concluded that Anchorage was designed to kill cyclists. I’ve long wondered why the death rate isn’t higher than it is.
Yes, some of the accidents are obviously the fault of the cyclists. Kids have yet to develop good judgment, and many of the street people who ride bikes clearly lost there’s long ago.
But it is only by luck that my years of bicycle commuting in Anchorage didn’t put me among the limbless or dead, and I know of too many other cyclists hit while following the rules of the road.
Whether the 37-year-old Idaho Stop was intended to make cycling more efficient and thus encourage more people to use bicycles and by that act alone making cycling safer, is unclear. But that appears to be what happened here.
Because one thing that is clear is that for cyclists there is safety in numbers.
“It appears that motorists adjust their behavior in the presence of increasing numbers of people bicycling because they expect or experience more people cycling,” researchers in Australia concluded a decade ago. “Also, rising cycling rates mean motorists are more likely to be cyclists, and therefore be more conscious of, and sympathetic towards, cyclists.”
When you come here from Anchorage, it’s an observation that simply jumps out at you.