Us vs. them: Can bicyclists and motorists get along on Santa Cruz County’s roads?

Santa Cruz County touts itself as being laid back and a cycling-friendly mecca. But is it? Every time anything cycling related appears in this column, rage comes out. This past Thursday's column is a perfect example. Verbal single finger solutes fly in both directions in the comment section and in emails to Street Smarts, as each side demands that the other obey traffic laws. Last week, top commentator Don Honda asked Street Smarts to explain the rules of the road as they pertain to these two types of road users. The California Driver Handbook, a Cliff's notes version of the California Vehicle Code, already does that, but here's my attempt. Before we get started, remember, no matter who's “right” at the time cars and bikes collide, cyclists always lose. Is the rage you feel toward “the other guy's” failure to obey traffic laws really worth the possibility that someone can die? People make mistakes. Heck, some even appear to boast entitlement on the road. No matter. As CHP officer Sarah Jackson said, “Courtesy is more often returned than forced.” If someone peeved you, let it go and continue on your way. Now, to the facts “That love-hate, us-them relationship between bicyclists and motor vehicles has been around for a long time, but is getting more play as bicycling has becoming a more popular means of adult transportation, whether for commuting or exercise and recreation,” said Chris Cochran, Office of Traffic Safety spokesperson. “With more adult bicyclists on the road, and kids bicycling to school beginning to show a resurgence, interaction with vehicles is bound to increase.” And with that increase of cyclists on the road comes hostility, as bike riders feel their mortality every time a driver gets a little too close or cuts them off. Meanwhile, motorists feel cyclists need to remember they need to stop at stop signs too, not race through traffic and shouldn't take up the whole travel lane so motor vehicle's can't pass safely. With all that love-hate going on, you'd think there was complete lawlessness on the roads. But it's actually getting safer out there. In 2010, traffic fatalities dipped by nearly 12 percent, reaching their lowest level since the federal government began recording traffic fatalities in 1975, according to the California Office of Traffic Safety. As for cyclists, there were 148 injury-related bike crashes in Santa Cruz County that year, slightly lower than 2006 and 2007 levels after an up-tick in 2008 and 2009, said Cochran. In 2008, 187 injured cyclists and two deaths, reported Ecology Action. In 2010, there were no deaths, Cochran noted. “Regardless of the raw numbers, however, the county remained at the bottom of the rankings every year, when compared to other counties,” said Cochran. “Only San Francisco regularly ranks worse. 50-50 fault line? As for who's at fault in the local crashes, 47 percent of those injury-related crashes in 2010 were caused by cyclists, Cochran said. In 2008, when cycling vs. car injury crashes where higher, 43 percent of them were ruled the cyclists' fault, reported Ecology Action. Those numbers mean that more than 50 percent of the time, the person behind the wheel of a deadly weapon -- a.k.a. the automobile -- was found fault. The numbers also illustrate that whether the cyclist was obeying the law or not, he or she was introduced to the wrong end of a bumper. “What OTS and the traffic safety community try to make everyone aware of is that bicycles are legal vehicles, with all the same rights and responsibilities of any other vehicle,” said Cochran. “They must abide by all the laws. Motorists must also consider them vehicles by looking for them, recognizing their vulnerability and affording them the safe space they need to operate. There has to be a mindset among everyone that the roads must be safely shared – shared because everyone has a right to be there, and safely since operating any vehicle is inherently risky and requires all our attention, all our skill, and all our consideration of others around us.” Again, even if you perceive that “the other guy” is being inconsiderate and disobeying the law, brush it off and try to be the person you want everyone else to be. Change starts by looking in the mirror -- rear view, side view and even the one tucked in the sun visor. Help on the web
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