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Watts: Cyclist Safety

Several recent car-bike collisions underscore just how far we have to go to create a place where the roads are safe for all users – not just automobiles.

In Hinesburg, a biker in a bright yellow jacket was hit by a truck and knocked to the ground. In Burlington, a biker was hit as she attempted to make a turn.

And just the other day, a friend, co-worker and regular biker was smashed so badly that her jaw and arm were broken. The driver of the car, turning right, hit her broadside despite her day glow yellow shirt and neon backpack. Her jaw is now wired shut.

Last year, four bikers were killed in Vermont, one by a driver who fell asleep, another by someone who “never saw the biker.”

I ride a bike to work almost every day. The air, the motion, the sense of joy are unmatched. The vast majority of car drivers are courteous, giving me space, waiting to pass. Yet far too often, somewhere in Vermont a bike and a car collide. And a collision between a one-ton vehicle of steel and a human being can have terrible consequences.

Riding a bike, simply to go to work, should not be a dangerous undertaking. Here are some simple solutions that can help.

First of all, we need more curb separated bikeways. Think Montreal or Burlington’s New North End. If we build protected bike paths in our roadways, bikers of all ages, shapes and sizes will follow.

Secondly, we need to educate bikers and non-bikers about the rules of the road. Our new four-foot passing law is infrequently followed. And bikers too often run red lights and stop signs, flaunting traffic laws. Road users need to follow the rules. And we should start cyclist/driver education at early ages.

And thirdly, there should be higher penalties for drivers that hit cyclists. Sadly, research has found that almost never does a driver go to jail if they kill or maim a biker. In most bike/car collisions the driver receives no penalty at all, or at worst, something akin to a traffic ticket.

In the Netherlands, more than 50% of routine travel is by bike, and hitting a biker, no matter who’s at fault, is a very severe offense. Drivers are considered guilty until proven innocent. As a result, drivers are extremely cautious, creeping carefully through places where cyclists and cars interact. Ten-year-olds and 80-year-olds ride bikes without fear.

A public transportation system should provide all users - cars, walkers, buses and bikers – with the safety they both need and deserve.

Richard Watts teaches communications and public policy in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Vermont and directs the Center for Research on Vermont. He is also the co-founder of a blog on sustainable transportation.
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