When bikes and cars crash: Minneapolis sees accidents increase

The city’s bicycle expert, Transportation Engineer Donald Pflaum, is concerned. In recent years, Minneapolis’ bicycle-car crash rates have steadily declined — until this year, when rates went up 62 percent through August. This is the first time since 1997 accidents have gone up.

That’s not news to Gene Oberpriller, owner of One on One Bicycle Studio, 117 Washington Ave. N. He’s amassed a mammoth bicycle junkyard of twisted metal in his bike-shop basement, with wall panels covered in crash headlines.

Oberpriller said bicycle-car crashes are going up because of poor traffic enforcement of drivers and riders. Another factor, he says: more bicyclists on the streets, including a high rate of bike commuters from Southwest to downtown.

Pflaum said he has researched the crash increase and concluded more riders equal more crashes. He points to local trail and bike lane development, plus a spike in bicycling during this year’s bus strike.

State data provides important counterpoint to the city’s numbers: crashes may be up, but injuries and fatalities are down.

Crash stats

The good news: no bicyclists have been killed in Minneapolis this year. (In 2002, according to the most recent national data, 662 bicyclists were killed in car-bike crashes.)

The bad news: in 2003, there were 234 crashes in Minneapolis; as of October 2004, there were already 276 crashes, Pflaum said.

One-third of crashes involve kids, Pflaum said. Ten- to 15-year-olds are twice as likely to be injured as any other age group, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data.

Deaths skew older. According to NHTSA, the average age of someone killed in a bicycle-related crash in 2002 was 35.7 years versus 26.7 years for those injured. The agency also states that since 1992, fatalities among bicyclists 25 and older have steadily increased.

No matter what their age, male bicyclists are always at higher risk for being injured or killed.

Alan Rodgers, research analyst for the Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety’s Crash Facts Department, said the state bicycle injury and fatality rates have stayed nearly the same since 2002, but urban areas pose greater risk. In 2002, 300 of the state’s 860 injured bicyclists were in Minneapolis and St. Paul — 34 percent of the injuries in cities with 14 percent of the state’s population.

Despite the higher number of crashes, state data shows that resulting fatalities and injuries at the state and city level have slowly decreased since 1999. That means that while crashes are up in Minneapolis, fewer people report being hurt.

To pinpoint crash causes, Pflaum looked beyond demographics to time of day, weather and traffic situations.

His January-August 2004 analysis revealed that the day of the week or type of weather made no difference. Most crashes occurred on dry, clear days.

According to the 2002 NHTSA crash data, bicyclists are more likely to be injured in crashes at intersections — but are more likely to die in crashes within traffic.

The data also identifies the top reason for bike/car crashes: someone failed to yield to a right of way.

Who’s at fault?

Although you’d expect a fair amount of finger-pointing, bike enthusiasts and traffic engineers are cautious about assigning fault in bike-car crashes. They acknowledge the antagonism between bicyclists and drivers. However, they all say the fault is equally shared — even if bicyclists are more likely to be injured or killed.

Lt. Jeff Rugel of the Minneapolis Police Department’s Traffic Unit, says accidents are often due to drivers and pedalers who don’t follow the rules of the road.

Oberpriller, who has been in many bike-car crashes himself, said he sees bicyclists run red lights and disregard traffic laws all the time. He said they do it because they can get away with it. "You can run lights right in front of the police and they’re not going to do anything," Oberpriller said.

Still, he said he’s seen many cases wherein bicyclists obey the rules of the road and the motorist is at fault by turning in front of bicycles and cutting them off.

Bryn Mawr resident Hurl Everstone, a mechanic at Calhoun Cycle, 3342 Hennepin Ave. S., said he commutes daily to work through Southwest and knows that biking in traffic is tough because drivers don’t look for bikers.

"Drivers aren’t necessarily seeing you. On a bike, they look right past you," he said.

Everstone also said motorists often underestimate bike speed, a prelude to cutting off bicyclists.

Everstone (who does not own a car) is also the creator of pro-biking, anticar punk rock site carsrcoffins.com. He advocates that people leave their cars at home and use alternative transportation, but he doesn’t take all the blame off bicyclists.

"It’s a two-way street — no pun intended," Everstone said.

He said that bicyclists must do their part to make sure to follow traffic laws. He recommends that bicyclists try to establish eye contact with drivers and do all that they can to make sure motorists see them.

Where to bike (and not)

Through his commuting exploits through Southwest, Everstone has a pretty good idea of which roads are bikable for different biking skill levels.

"Hennepin is pretty gnarly," he said, adding Lake Street, Lagoon and Lyndale avenues to that list. "There’s just such a high traffic volume."

Everstone said deciding where to ride has a lot to do with what kind of traffic a bicyclist is comfortable with. He said the trail system in Minneapolis is excellent, and bicyclists should take advantage of it.

Everstone said bicyclists who want to avoid high traffic and go slower than speeds around the Chain of Lakes should seek out side streets. He said he often takes Humboldt Avenue and also recommends Bryant and Blaisdell avenues.

Pflaum said the Whittier and Uptown areas are tougher to bike in, but he also recommended that bicyclists judge streets’ bikability based on their own skill level.

Nick Mason, director of advocacy at Penn Cycle, 710 W. Lake St., said popular Lake Street alternatives are 31st and 26th streets and 29th Street, also known as the Midtown Greenway — a paved bike trail maintained by Hennepin County in a rail-line trench through Southwest to Lake Minnetonka and beyond.

Trails have their own risks, though.

Bob Byers, a senior Hennepin County transportation engineer, said the county has received many complaints this year about the high rate of crashes at trail crossings, where bikes and cars mix.

He said local government must do more to improve crossing safety; the county is looking into extra signage.

Improving safety

Pflaum said city staff, police and groups such as the city’s Bicycle Advisory Committee launched a campaign to educate the public about traffic and bike safety laws. He said he wants to get the word out through public service announcements and visits to schools since children represent such a large proportion of crash victims.

The Police Department’s Rugel said he is stepping up enforcement as much as he can within a recently tightened budget.

He said he’s directing traffic officers to emphasize bicycle-related traffic issues and tagging. Rugel said aggressive enforcement has already reduced complaints about lawbreaking bicyclists at Augsburg College.

Penn Cycle’s Mason said he’s trying to promote bicycle safety in Southwest by pushing the use of helmets. He said that a helmet has saved his life in a car-related crash, and people need to wear them. "You only have to be going 7 miles per hour to be killed in a crash, and you can do that in your driveway," he said.

Mason said helmets cost $30-$150, though he sells some specialty helmets for close to $300. He said front and rear lights are also essential for bicycle safety and cost around $11.