Making the roads bike safe

Our view: Death of 20-year-old in Towson a sobering reminder of our failure to properly accommodate bicyclists

In recent weeks, there has been an uproar in Baltimore over the presence of protected bicycle lanes in Canton and elsewhere. Local residents resented the loss of parking spaces, and some feared that narrowed streets might interfere with fire trucks or other emergency vehicles. The Potomac Street bike lane was subsequently ordered removed (though a judge has halted that action with a temporary restraining order), and last week, Mayor Catherine Pugh announced a citywide review of bike lanes and parking, a move some see as the beginning of the end of bike-friendly policies in the city.

On Monday night, there was a sobering reminder of the vulnerability of bicyclists even on one of the widest and most heavily biked of local thoroughfares with the death of Aaron Laciny, a cyclist struck by not one but two vehicles shortly after 10:30 p.m. The 20-year-old was traveling south at the 6200 block of Charles Street near Woodbrook Lane in Towson when he was struck by a hit-and-run driver. According to Baltimore County police, he was then struck by a second driver who stopped to render aid. Mr. Laciny was then taken to Greater Baltimore Medical Center where he died. As of Tuesday, investigators were asking for help in their search for the first driver who likely has a damaged front bumper.

Perhaps it isn’t fair to imply that those who protest bike lanes in their neighborhoods are indifferent to such tragedies. Certainly, they didn’t fatally injure the victim. That chore was likely accomplished by some negligent driver who may have been impaired, speeding or simply inattentive. But how sympathetic — or even well informed — is the motoring public toward cyclists? Based on some of the language that has informed the recent debate over bike lanes, maybe not very.

Cyclists represent a small fraction of road fatalities, about 2 percent per year. But in 2015, the last full year for which crash statistics are available, 817 bicyclists were killed in crashes with motor vehicles, a 13 percent increase from the previous year and the highest number in two decades. Statistics show it isn’t little kids getting killed in such collisions, it’s people age 20 and older and far more likely male than female. June and July are the cruelest months with 22 percent of the fatalities, and from 3 p.m. until midnight is when 60 percent take place, according to an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study.

Increased traffic congestion may play a role in this trend, but surely so does increased bike use by commuters. More and more, younger people are choosing to bike to work, and communities that fail to make accommodations for these riders are playing with fire.

If Baltimore, in particular, wants to attract young professionals, it must invest more in public infrastructure that enables them to walk, bike or take public transportation to work. And suburban communities like Towson are surely in the same boat. Sharing the road is not a luxury, it’s an economic necessity.

And yet we have heard the complaints — that cars outnumber bikes enormously and therefore deserve priority treatment or that cyclists sometimes fail to follow the rules of the road themselves and thereby attract dangerous encounters. But neither absolves motorists from their responsibility to drive safely. If Baltimore area drivers prove incapable of looking out for bikers or observing the state law requiring three feet of clearance when passing, then perhaps designated corridors of protected bike lanes with physical barriers and narrowed driving lanes are the better answer, or at least a big part of the answer. It’s fair for Baltimore to debate the right locations and configurations of protected bike lanes, and we need to be willing to make adjustments in cases where they aren’t working as intended. But the need for such accommodations should by this point be undeniable. One way or the other, the bicyclists are coming.

The physics of a bike versus motorized vehicle encounter is not going to change. A bike weighs 20 pounds, a car perhaps 4,000. The car is going to win that battle every time. Clearly, bikers have to be vigilant of the next dog running in the street, the car door unexpectedly opening, the truck that fails to use its blinkers when turning. But that kind of defensive mentality ought to inform motorists, too. And it wouldn’t hurt to simply show a little appreciation for those who brave city and suburban streets by bicycle. Each represents one fewer car on the road and one fewer competitor for those limited parking spaces, a slightly smaller carbon footprint, the choice of a healthier lifestyle. “We’re on this road together,” is the theme of the latest bike safety campaign with a underlying message of “expect and respect.” Is it really such a sacrifice to use extra caution on behalf of someone who may be a friend, a neighbor or even a family member? If so, try explaining why to those who knew and loved Aaron Laciny.

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