Considering bicycle safety on a tragic anniversary

Published September 18, 2005 12:01 am

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Last October, almost 1,000 people on bicycles rode to the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon to remember cyclists who had been hit and killed by automobiles.

In response to those tragedies, the Josie Johnson Memorial Ride and the creation of the Utah Bicycle Coalition have helped raise awareness for bicycle safety. This year, we're continuing efforts, urging folks to be careful, courteous, and to share the road.

Bicycling advocacy in Utah has grown significantly in the past few years. Three new nonprofit advocacy groups and three new bicycle advisory committees are hard at work. Organized rides are receiving record participation. The governor signed a 3-foot-clearance passing law. And, yes, Salt Lake City's own Dave Zabriskie wore yellow in the Tour de France.

A few things to maintain the positive momentum are a strong Safe Routes to School program, Complete Streets policies and better law enforcement. The new federal transportation bill provides $612 million for Safe Routes to School (SR2S), a national program designed to improve safety for kids biking and walking to school, increase physical activity, and reduce school-related traffic congestion.

Since the 1970s, the percentage of kids who bike or walk to school has dropped from 60 percent to 10 percent. In that same time, the percentage of obese children age 6-11 has tripled. Utah should hire full-time SR2S coordinators to implement Safe Routes programs, educate all children how to be safe, and construct safer paths around our schools.

Our state and local transportation departments can help balance safety with all transportation modes by adopting a policy of Complete Streets, whereby all new roads and construction projects consider bicycle and pedestrian travel. I currently have a letter in to Utah Department of Transportation asking for this simple and much-needed provision. We don't need bike lanes on every street, just smooth shoulders free of debris or wide-enough outside lanes.

And finally, law enforcement needs to improve. When car-bike collisions occur, the police accident report needs to be thorough and conducted so the bicyclist's rights are regarded as equal to any motorist's. Kudos to the Utah Department of Health and its efforts to train officers to find and cite drivers who disregard cyclists on the road and likewise cite cyclists who disregard the law.

Next, we need to train some of our public prosecutors. Last year, three people in Utah were struck and killed by motorists. On Aug. 12, 2004, William Fails was hit from behind and killed at 9:30 a.m. on SR-21, one mile east of Minersville.

There was no traffic at the time, and therefore no witnesses to counter or support the young driver's testimony that Mr. Fails swerved into the travel lane at the last minute. Mr. Fails was wearing an orange vest, and rode this stretch of road so frequently that local residents recognized him, including the driver who hit him.

Beaver County Attorney Von Christenson said the driver appears partially to blame, but the family was not pressing for vengeance, and "justice is best served in this case by not pursuing prosecution." Mr. Fails' other family - the bicycling community - is not vengeful. But we do expect consequences for those who kill or hurt bicyclists if they are negligent.

On Aug. 16 of last year, Ron Hirschi was killed while riding in North Ogden when a truck and trailer, traveling in the opposite direction, made a left turn directly in front of him. The driver was issued a ticket for "failure to yield."

Then one year ago today, Josie Johnson was hit and killed while riding her bike up Big Cottonwood Canyon. The motorist has been charged with negligent homicide after a huge public outcry.

On the bright side, not one bicyclist has died in Utah this year, and the Josie Johnson Memorial Ride will start at noon at Sugarhouse Park on Saturday, Oct. 15.


Jason Bultman is chairman of the Salt Lake County Bicycle Advisory Committee.



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