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Bicycle safety now: What we can learn from Davis

Photo: san francisco bicycle Coalition / flickr

On Wednesday, June 20, Chris Bucchere – the bicyclist charged with killing a pedestrian in San Francisco’s Castro District on March 29 – pleaded not guilty to felony vehicular manslaughter. The very next day, I stepped into a crosswalk on Page Street and was nearly mowed down by a helmetless, headphone-wearing cyclist who ran a stop sign. I yelled at him about following the law and he flipped me off without even looking back as he blew through another stop sign.

Since the Bucchere incident, I’ve been acutely aware of just how few San Francisco bicyclists seem to have learned anything from it. While the Bucchere case exemplifies cycling at its worst, I’ve witnessed cycling at its best in Davis, Calif. When my pit bull was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, I spent a lot of time there while she was undergoing radiation treatments at the UC Davis veterinary hospital. I actually lived in Davis for a six-week period in September 2010 and spent much of that time as a pedestrian, where I observed a majority of polite, law-abiding bicyclists who stopped at every stop sign and made eye contact with both pedestrians and motorists. I also noted an observant, vigilant police department that has no problem pulling over the minority of cyclists who don’t obey the rules of the road.

Nearly 15 percent of Davis residents commute to and from work on bicycles. That’s two and a half times that of California runner-up Palo Alto and 35 times the national average. Yet, over a five-year period there wasn’t a single pedestrian or bicycle fatality. Davis also has an extremely low rate of pedestrian and bicycle injuries. Though you may think this is because Davis is a small town, the city is actually incredibly compact and includes a bustling downtown with more than
65,000 residents.

So why is Davis such a safe biking town? To start, the city is set up for success. Davis pioneered bike lanes (which were actually prohibited by California traffic codes until the late 1960s) and currently has bike lanes or paths on 90 percent of its roadways. Davis also installed the first bike-activated traffic signals in the country.

Secondly, when it comes to the enforcement of traffic laws, Davis isn’t fooling around. The police department conducts regular “bike traps,” peppering the streets with officers to issue citations. The most common time of the year for bike traps is in early fall, because many new students who come to UC Davis from elsewhere either don’t know California vehicular laws or don’t follow them. Stings might include cops driving around campus at night waving down multiple bicyclists and having them wait in a line while the cops hand out bike light citations. Traps are also common on 3rd Street, a main downtown artery, where cops in cars and on bikes ticket riders for not coming to complete stops at stop signs. Bicycle citations in Davis aren’t cheap, either – running a stop sign will set you back 200 bucks.

Most important, Davis stresses education through its Bicycle Education and Enforcement Program, where the Transportation and Parking Services and the university police department have developed an online training course for the safe operation of bicycles at the UC Davis campus. The course, which takes approximately 45 minutes to complete, teaches cyclists about the traffic rules and regulations that apply to them. If you receive a bicycle citation from the UC Davis police department, you might be able to take this course for a fee in lieu of paying the full citation amount. The police department also sponsors bike safety weeks. Even the City of Davis website features a page outlining bicycle traffic laws and offering safety tips.

Since two pedestrians were killed by bicyclists in San Francisco over the period of a year, the San Francisco police department has done a few stings themselves and has started emphasizing some educational programs; but with cycling having increased over 70 percent in San Francisco during the past five years, much more needs to be done. With huge numbers of people biking to work on a daily basis, it may be time to look into licensing commuter bicyclists so they must take the same DMV tests motorcyclists and motorists take to ensure that they know the laws. It also seems that offenders should face some of the same punishments motorcyclists and motorists face, like points against their license. And if they’re going to be commuters, thus increasing the chances of accidents on city streets, perhaps they should also have to carry insurance. I’m not advocating these measures for the person who bikes through Golden Gate Park recreationally, one or two Sundays a month; but for everyday commuters, I think it makes sense.

Whenever the topic of traffic citations or more rules for bicyclists comes up, bicycle advocates immediately remind everyone that automobiles are involved in more accidents than bicycles by a long shot. No one is disputing that fact, but it’s comparing apples to oranges. Anyone who shares the road with bicyclists in San Francisco will likely tell you that the majority of bicyclists here seem to think the laws don’t apply to them as they blow through stop signs, make illegal left turns from three lanes over, and zip through red lights without so much as a glance. Tougher rules and enforcement are in the best interest of bicyclists, too, since when a bike and a car do collide, the bicyclist is most likely to wind up
in the hospital or at the morgue.

The bottom line is that education and enforcement are working in the City of Davis, and it would benefit all San Franciscans – whether on two wheels, four wheels, or two feet – if our city lawmakers looked at Davis for ideas on how to fix the problems here.

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