What The New York Truck Attack Says About Bike Safety

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The Hudson River Greenway terrorist attack affected many individuals on a personal level, whether as a fellow city dweller, resident of New York state or citizen of the U.S. For bicyclists, the tragic event was a reminder of the risk they take by commuting on two wheels instead of four.

Eight cyclists perished in the attack. These cyclists were not killed riding alongside traffic, but on a greenway designated for walking and biking. In this case, the attacker intentionally swerved to hit the civilians on the greenway. A drunk, tired or otherwise distracted driver could have made the same move and the bicyclists would have met the same fate.

The car could have been impeded with a safety bollard: a thin metal pole that can be screwed into place and removed when needed. That same object stopped Richard Rojas from plowing his car through Times Square in May 2017, New York Magazine reports.

Rojas had already managed to kill 18-year-old Alyssa Elsman and injure several others by the time the bollard impaled his vehicle. A row of bollards may have prevented him from ever entering the pedestrian area in the first place.

According to the New York Bicycling Coalition, the Hudson River Greenway is one of the most heavily-used bicycle paths in the nation. The Oct. 31 tragedy was not its first. In 2006, Eric Ng was killed by a car after a drunk driver drove on the path for more than a mile.

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Another bike crash occurred in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 2016, in which five cyclists were killed after being struck from behind by a vehicle, according to The Washington Post. 

One of the survivors of the Kalamazoo incident, Paul Runnels, spoke to a committee of Michigan representatives in October in support of two bike safety bills, according to WTVB. One bill would require drivers to keep a minimum of five feet away from cyclists. The other would mandate all new drivers to take a one hour lesson on bike and pedestrian safety as part of their training. The bills passed in the State Senate, but have yet to make it through the House.

Runnels, who lost five friends and has three others still recovering from the crash, spoke to his representatives on behalf of himself and other bicyclists.

"We speak from personal experience in saying that we have a high level of discomfort when vehicles pass too closely," he said. "The majority of vehicle drivers give us enough room, but it takes only one thoughtless, belligerent, or impaired driver to pass too close and cause injury or death."

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The New York truck attack also prompted the NYBC to call for greater safety infrastructure in the state, adding that bollards "can no longer be considered an add-on or optional feature for bike paths or pedestrian walkways," according to an Nov. 1 statement on its website.

"While we cannot prevent all terrorist attacks, we can implement proven safety features to protect vulnerable road users and dramatically reduce the opportunity for tragedy to strike," the NYBC added in its statement.

The U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 818 cyclists were killed in 2015, accounting for 2.3 percent of all traffic-related deaths that year. Both the number of deaths and percentage of bicycles killed in all traffic accidents have increased since 2006.

The most common time for fatalities to occur is between the hours of 6 p.m. and 8:59 p.m., but the report said crashes are just as likely to occur during the day.

A separate report commissioned by the Governors Highway Safety Association -- a coalition of state traffic safety officers -- and funded by State Farm insurance found an increased rate of bike deaths outpaced the rise of overall traffic deaths, the Chicago Tribune reports.

Of the cyclists deaths in 2015, the GHSA reported that 72 percent occurred on roadways as opposed to intersections. Distracted drivers were the cause of the crash 77 percent of the time.

"When we bike, we have as much right to the road as when we drive," said State Farm spokeswoman Vicki Harper. "Unfortunately, when bikes and cars collide, cyclists are much more susceptible to serious injury or death."

The GHSA estimates as many as 45,000 cyclists were injured in crashes in 2015, but only a fraction of them are recorded by police since neither the bikes nor the cars are towed following a collision.

The GHSA criticized states' inability to use federal highway funds for bicycle-related safety initiatives and asked Congress to "fully integrate nonmotorized accommodation in all surface transportation projects." GHSA recommends states adopt painted bike lanes, bike boxes at stoplights and an advanced signal for cyclists to go before cars.

As a bike commuter myself, I can't say I disagree with the GHSA's recommendations. Adding bollards around bike lanes would also be a good idea.

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