Monday, December 23, 2013

2013: The Year's Biggest Bicycle Stories

There were some major ups and downs for bicycling in Chicago in 2013.  It was a year that saw a major uptick in the popularity of transportation cycling in our city.  It was also a year of losses which the bicycling community will never forget.  Here are the top five Chicago cycling stories of 2013:

5.  The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) placed a moratorium on the installation of protected bike lanes in Chicago.  In February, our friends at Streetsblog Chicago reported that IDOT -- which has jurisdiction over many streets in Chicago -- refused to allow the installation of protected bike lanes until at least three years of crash data could be collected.  Steetsblog pointed out that the moratorium was in places inconsistent with the plans and recommendations of the Chicago Department of Transportation.  IDOT's stance was frustrating to some in light of the availability of crash data from other cities which had significant experience with protected bike lanes.  In May, following the death of cyclist, Bobby Cann, who was killed on Clybourn Avenue, a road under IDOT's jursidiction and which lacked a protected bike lane, concern over the moratorium increased.  Many wondered if the existence of a protected lane where Cann was killed might have prevented the tragedy.  In October, at a memorial service for Cann it was announced that IDOT had backed off somewhat and would allow a protected bicycle lane to be installed on Clybourn.

4.  The City of Chicago and the State of Illinois clarified laws allowing people on bicycles to pass drivers on the right.  In June, Chicago's City Council passed the 2013 Bicycle Safety Ordinance which, among other things, stated that 
Any bicyclist upon a roadway is permitted to pass on the right side of a slower-moving or standing vehicle or bicycle, but must exercise due care when doing so.

In August, the State followed suit passing a fix to the Illinois Motor Vehicle Code stating that human powered two wheeled vehicles are not barred from passing motor vehicles on the right.

The amendments were necessary to aid police departments confused over whether cyclists may pass on the right.  Unnecessary traffic citations to bicyclists were sometimes the result of this confusion.  With the changes in place"Illinoisans riding bicycles may confidently pass slow-moving cars on the right side of the road and know that they are on solid ground legally," said Max Muller, Director of Government Relations for the Active Transportation Alliance.

Our law firm worked with Active Trans, CDOT and State Representative Laura Fine to draft the changes.

3.  In November, Gabe Klein, impassioned new wave infrastructure crusader, stepped away from his post as CDOT commissioner.  Early this month, his lieutenant, deputy commissioner Scott Kubly also called it quites.  Commissioner Klein was the driving force behind Chicago's push in recent years to install bicycle friendly infrastructure.  Under his watch, Chicago saw hundreds of miles of new protected and buffered bicycle lanes put in place and the implementation of a world class bike share system.  When he announced that he would be returning to the private sector many in bicycle advocacy assumed that Kubly would fill his shoes, allowing for a smooth transition and continuation of bike friendly changes.  With both gone, and with no successors yet to be named, the future of cycling in Chicago is perhaps less clear.

2.  The death of Bobby Cann shook Chicago's bicycling community to its core.  On a May 29th at around 6:35 p.m., Cann was struck and killed by Ryne San Hamel who was allegedly driving his Mercedes sedan 20 miles per hour over the speed limit.  San Hamel was charged with driving under the influence, having an alleged blood alcohol content of .127, well over the legal limit.  There was immediate wide spread outrage at the driver, heartfelt empathy for Cann's family and many friends, and fear among regular city cyclists.  A temporary memorial popped up at the site of the crash, which occurred outside of iconic Chicago bike shop Yojimbo's Garage.  In October, Clybourn Avenue was named Honorary Bobby Cann Way.  That same month The Reader featured Cann on its front page with the headline, "Death of a Cyclist."

Others died riding their bicycles in Chicago in 2013.  None of those lives were less important than Cann's.  But there was something about his death that shook the broader community deeper.  Perhaps it was because it happened while he was riding home from work in the early evening, on a sunny late spring day.  Maybe the fact that Cann was known to be a experienced safe city cyclist freaked a lot of people out. He was not the sort to run lights.  If it could happen to him, it could happen to any of us.  Perhaps much of it had to do with the driver, a young man himself, he was a partner with a business venture called  Pictures of San Hamel partying and appearing to drink substantial amounts of alcohol circulated over the internet.  The fact that San Hamel has been criminally charged, a relative rarity where a driver hurts or kills a cyclist, has increased its broad impact.   San Hamel seemed like the poster child of the world's worst driver and an uncaring, self-absorbed asshole.

1.  But the biggest story of 2013 was an undeniably positive one, the launch of Chicago's bike share program, Divvy.  Launched in June, Divvy has taken off with koisks popping up all over the city, a gazillion miles racked up by riders and an impressive safety record.  The idea of grabbing a public bike from one street corner and leaving it at a station near one's destination as proven to be a big hit.  At $75 for unlimited use for a year, or $7 per each half hour on a pay-as-you-go plan, it is an extremely cost effective and enjoyable way to get around town.  So popular has bike share been in Chicago that even during one of the coldest Decembers in recent memory Divvy bikes are routinely seen being pedaled all around town.

The best thing about Divvy is that it is for everybody, old and young, brave and less-so.  The bikes are heavy, slow, convenient and comfortable.  With step through frames and chain guards you can ride them in a suit or in a dress.  The program and its increasing popularity encourages everyone to ride the city, threatening to breakdown the us versus them mentality.  In the future aided by Divvy we are all people who ride bikes.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Hysteria Over Bicycle Helmets Could Subvert Justice

Somewhere along the way, well-intentioned people ended up doing harm to the people they wanted to protect.  I do not know exactly when it happened, but sometime between the 1970s, when no one wore helmets to ride their bikes, to now, when those who do not are viewed as reckless fools, good intentions went off the tracks.  The desire of health care professionals to see fewer children with head injuries by wearing helmets was and is a good thing.  But that desire has morphed into into something harmful.

Riding with a helmet is no longer merely a safety issue, it is a credibility issue as well.  Ride without one and risk being viewed as lacking good sense, as reckless.  When the news media reports on a bicycle crash there is often mention of whether the cyclist wore a helmet or not that often seems like a non sequitur. Sometimes it is sounds like a down right accusation.  Oh, she wasn't wearing a helmet.  They she deserved to get hit by that bus.  Just last month, The Chicago Sun Times published a snarky piece* critical of Chicago's new bike share program, Divvy, for not offering helmets to riders.  "Waiting To Happen:  Clueless riders.  No helmets.  Divvys everywhere.  What could go wrong?" screeched the sarcastic headline.  

The media's focus on helmet wearing is both is misinformed and threatens to undermine a cyclist's ability to receive justice in the event of a crash.

Wearing a helmet may reduce the risk of sustaining certain kinds of injuries, primarily skull fractures.  Also, certain types of higher risk forms of cycling -- road racing, dirt jumping -- should be done with a protected dome.  However, risks of head injury from slow bike riding and "transportation cycling" seem to be pretty darn low.  In the very same snarky Sun Times article which insisted that bike share was a tragedy just waiting to happen was an important statistic:  Of the 679,925 trips taken on Divvy bikes up to that point, only 7 accidents had been reported to Divvy.  Seven, or, .001% of the trips taken resulted in an accident being reported to Divvy.  A look at safety figures from other bike share systems around longer suggest that serious injuries to Divvy riders will remain low.  The current issue of Momentum Magazine offers some impressive statistics regarding bike share.
After 4.5 million trips, no user in London, UK, has been seriously injured or killed in a traffic crash.  Minneapolis, MN, can boast the same impressive record after 1 million trips; New York City, NY, after 3.1 million trips; Washington, DC, after 4 million trips; and Mexico City, Mexico, after 1.6 million trips.
These numbers suggest that the decision not to wear a helmet while riding a slow bike for transportation is a perfectly reasonable choice to make.

The reasonableness of that decision is important in the context of an injury claim.  In a personal injury case no single factor is more important toward a successful outcome than the credibility of the person bringing the claim or lawsuit.  The plaintiff's credibility is important every step of the way.  The police who arrive at the scene of a crash will immediately assess the victim's credibility.  Very often police reports note whether the bicyclist was wearing a helmet, even though helmet use is not required by law.  A driver's insurance company will consider the credibility of the injured cyclist and will be more likely to resolve the case early if it seems that, along with the driver's negligence, the cyclist was doing everything right.  Ultimately, a jury will be asked to consider the conduct of the defendant.  But the plaintiff's conduct -- the actions of the person bringing the lawsuit -- is always considered as well.  If the plaintiff makes a poor impression, either in the courtroom or with their past conduct, a jury will be disinclined to render a favorable verdict even in the face of evidence of the defendant's negligence.  There is no question, that at trial, at least in an urban setting, jurors will wonder whether the bicyclist had been wearing a helmet at the time of the crash.  They will wonder this even though Illinois laws forbids them to do so.  Two Illinois cases, Clarkson v. Wright and Moore v. Swoboda, created the general principal that in vehicular negligence cases evidence of the plaintiff's failure to use protective devices "is inadmissible for the purpose of establishing contributory negligence." Moore v. Swoboda, 571 N.E.2d 1056, 1071 (4th Dist. 1991).

All of this constant attention on bicycle helmets may poison potential jurors' attitudes toward cyclists who choose to ride without one.  The impact such attitudes may have on any particular case may be hard to gauge.  The attorney trying a bicycle case in front of jury must question potential jurors in voir dire about their attitudes regarding people who ride their bikes in the city.  Attitudes about helmet use should be questioned in order to determine whether your client will get a fair shake.

But long term, the hyperventilating about helmet use must stop.  

* I was interviewed for the article and said that under certain circumstances a company that rented bikes could be held liable for failing to provide a helmet.  I expressed that I thought it unlikely that liability could arise in the bike share context but that sentiment did not quite come out in the article.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Marine, Aspiring Chef, Bicyclist Killed By Alleged Drunk Driver

Hector Avalos
Hector Avalos was a Marine, a good son, a hard working chef, and a guy who rode his bicycle everywhere. On Friday night an allegedly drunk driver took his life as the 28 year old pedaled home from work.

Bail was set yesterday in what the judge called "a tragedy of epic proportions".  The driver, "Robert Vais, 54, of Riverside, has been charged with a felony count of aggravated driving under the influence," according to  Vais' blood alcohol content was .118 at the time of the crash, according to The Chicago Tribune.  The legal limit is .08.  The Tribune quoted police as describing that, "Vais' eyes were bloodshot and he smelled of alcohol" at the scene.

The deadly crash occurred at about 11:50 p.m. near 2500 West Ogden Avenue in Chicago.  Vais was driving a 2002 Ford Winstar westbound on Ogden when he struck Avalos who was riding home from his shift at El Hefe Super Macho Taqueria.  An experienced cyclist and lover of the outdoors, Jesus Vargas, head chef at El Hefe, told that, "Avalos was an avid cyclist who 'loved riding his bike'."

"He'd always ride the bike no matter what."

Avalos served five years in the Marine Corp and was studying to be a chef.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Oak Park Wrong To Mandate That Children Wear Bike Helmets

Sofia Kevenides learning to ride.
Oak Park has chosen the stick rather than the carrot when it comes to encouraging safe cycling for children. A new village ordinance will punish the parents of children under 17 where they are caught riding without a helmet.  This is the wrong approach.

Few sensible people would dispute the benefits of encouraging children to ride their bikes.  Bikes promote independence and good health for kids (and adults).  They also happen to be really fun. Injuries sometimes occur, so kids should be taught safe riding practices and should be encouraged to wear a helmet. When kids wear bike helmets the chance of injury is very significantly reduced. According to Children's Hospital of Illinois, "Wearing a proper fitting helmet can reduce the chances of serious head injuries by 85%." It is hard to argue with statistics like that.

However, as a parent the first trick is to get a child riding in the first place.  My six year old daughter rides a two wheeler now.  She loves it.  She wears a helmet.  But, such was not always the case.  At first, when she was about four, she did not love getting on her bike.  My wife and I had to nudge her a bit.  Once we got her pedaling, we took up the helmet battle.  Often she just would not wear one.  Against my better judgement at the time, I let her ride in the driveway and in front of our Logan Square home with her curls flying free in the breeze, helmetless.  I was just glad that she was riding and liking it.  Sometimes she fell and suffered minor scraps, mostly on her knees and hands.  She never hit her head.  She rode so slowly that it never seemed like she was at risk of a significant head injury even if she crashed.  Eventually, she came to enjoy riding and got good at it.  The helmet came next and it was no big deal.  She always saw her dad wearing one so it seemed like the natural thing to do.  At this point I am glad it did not sweat the helmet thing too much.  I just did not want to fight with her about it.  I wanted her to see all things bicycle in a positive way. Fighting over wearing a helmet did not seem worth it.  I feared it would turn her off riding and would discourage her from getting on her bike.  Once she started enjoying her bike, we more forcefully encouraged her to wear a helmet.

Parents learn quickly to pick their battles with their children as the grow from babies to toddlers to full on knee-skinning, dirt pile jumping kids.  Yeah, children should be encouraged to bike with a helmet, but first they should be encouraged to just ride.  Parents need some leeway with regard to how to accomplish that. The new Oak Park ordinance is fairly harsh.  "Parents of children under 17 will be required to pay a $25 fine or perform up to four hours of community service if their child is caught three times riding a bicycle without a helmet," according to The Chicago Tribune.  Many parents will feel it necessary to force their children to wear a helmet in the face of this potential punishment.  Some may even receive the misleading message that if the law requires helmet use perhaps biking is just too dangerous an activity for their kids.  In my opinion, helmet use for kids and adults alike should be encouraged, not mandated.

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