Beware Hazardous Intersections!

sign-warningIf you bike through Beverly Hills, you’ve noticed that we offer nothing to the cyclist: few racks, no lanes or share-the-road pavement markings, and not a single wayfinding sign. Beverly Hills evidently cares nothing about the safety of cyclists, as we’ve tirelessly pointed out over the past 18+ months of fruitless advocacy. Nothing has changed. But it’s not only bike facilities and improvements that we lack. Our Transportation division has failed to make our busy intersections safe for road users.

Too often, it seems that conflict between motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians seems actually engineered into Beverly Hills intersections: lane striping is faded; no ‘share the road’ signs exist to alert motorists to the presence of cyclists; and not a single pavement marking exists citywide to show cyclists how to position ourselves at an intersection or to suggest how to safely negotiate motor traffic through one.

Take for example the complicated Wilshire/Santa Monica junction. It is especially problematic for cyclists (as we’ve previously observed) because dual right-turn lanes introduce some ambiguity for the cyclist continuing straight west on Santa Monica Blvd. Yet our city has taken no steps to address such a situation, or generally to improve cyclist-motorists coexistence on our streets. In the face of officials’ inaction, Beverly Hills remains a relatively dangerous place for cyclists. Inordinate care must be taken simply to pass through unscathed.

Case Study in Negligence

Recently we received a call from Erik Mar, an experienced cyclist and bike commuter, who suffered the city’s cavalier approach to intersection safety. His injury collision at Olympic & South Beverly Drive in late September sent him to the hospital. If you’ve ridden through this monster, you’ll know it’s in need of improvement. City officials know too; they’ve discussed it at Traffic & Transportation Commission meetings.

To add insult to Mr. Mar’s injury, the responding police officer evidently disregarded relevant state vehicular statutes in order to pin the blame exclusively on the cyclist – leaving the motorist free of liability – and Mr. Mar free of compensation for his injury and property damage.

The Details

Intersection overview of South Beverly Drive and Olympic (map)

Overview of the South Beverly Drive and Olympic Blvd. intersection. Beverly Drive and Beverwil diverge just north of Olympic.

Traveling southbound September 26th on South Beverly Drive, a car-congested commercial district, Erik approached the Olympic intersection in the right-hand of two travel lanes. Approaching Olympic, this lane splits into two travel lanes which diverge without advanced notice via signage or pavement marking. The lane markings simply end about 100 feet in advance of the split. Traveling in the right side of the right-hand lane – as mandated by the state vehicular code – he followed South Beverly by bearing to the left (while still keeping to the right side of the travel lane).

The motorist who followed him, however, continued straight at that split to follow South Beverwill Drive after the intersection. (Counter-intuitively and confusingly, it is the continuation of South Beverly that bears left.) Their crossing vectors caused Mr. Mar to fall.

Intersection detail of South Beverly Drive and Olympic (map)

Seen from the southbound traveler's perspective, the diverging lanes offer no traffic-flow guidance. Worse, it introduces ambiguity for the cyclist in this busy 6-point junction.

The problem with this intersection is that ambiguity is engineered into it. Mr. Mar was traveling in his lane in accord with the law and saw no need to signal a turn because he saw South Beverly Drive continue to the left. The motorist evidently assumed that the cyclist was continuing straight. Without signage to signal the southbound divergence, or lane markings to indicate a priority direction, motorist-cyclist conflict is built in.

As Mr. Mar found out the hard way, the city’s failure to adequately mark and sign this intersection creates confusion for non-motor road users.

The Follow-Up: Faulty Fault-Finding

At first glance, this collision seems like an accident – perhaps the flipside of the dreaded right-hand hook that catches a cyclist by surprise when a motorist executes a hasty right-hand turn. In such collisions, the cyclist may enter the intersection after the motorist begins to slow, and without looking he turns into the cyclist’s path. If there exists no right turn lane, the motorists intentions may not be clear without a signal to alert the cyclist. If there is a right turn lane, then the cyclist is obligated to move to the continuing lane and out of the flow of right-turn traffic. When there is a bike lane present, though, some guidance is afforded both the motorist and the cyclist. When turning, the motorist must enter the bike lane just prior to turning.

But this was no ‘accident’ – a term overused when it comes to bike-car collisions. Often there is indeed attributable fault, whether imprudence or plan disregard for the safety of another road user.

In this case, the motorist was clearly following too closely and then attempted to pass but without sufficient room to pass safely. Had the motorist allowed Mr. Mar more lead, she might have seen him following Beverly Drive to the left. Had she offered a greater buffer, she might have avoided the conflict entirely. Instead, she took Mr. Mar down.

The responding officer perhaps heard Mr. Mar say, “I should have looked behind,” and summarily wrote in the report that the fault was his. But the vehicular code does not suggest this finding.

Mr. Mar correctly notes that the vehicular code (sec. 21202) stipulates that a cyclist ride to the right “when practicable” or unless preparing to turn left, while requiring a motorist to overtake “at a safe distance without interfering with the safe operation of the overtaken…bicycle.” Moreover, a cyclist under state law is not required to share a “substandard” width lane, which seems to mean lanes not more than 14 ft. wide.

“In this instance, I am authorized to occupy the full lane; I was not changing lanes; and the vehicle which struck me from behind did not overtake me at a safe distance,” Mr. Mar says. “The culpability and responsibility for the collision therefore should be attributed to the car, not to me.”

As a matter of good practice, he could have looked behind him, but under the law it is the operator of overtaking vehicle that must exercise prudence in passing.

In sum, not only didn’t the city safely mark this intersection – indeed knowingly allows a hazardous intersection to exist unimproved – but the cop incorrectly assigned fault. That is a double-whammy familiar to cyclists who inexplicably shoulder the presumption of fault even as our roads fail to accommodate cyclists safely.

The Take-Away for Cyclists?

Assigning fault in such a collision is not merely an academic exercise; Mr. Mar suffered harm to his body and property. Now his ability to recover compensatory damages is limited by the police report that let the motorist off the hook.

The take-away for cyclists is two-fold:

  • We must fend for ourselves in our asymmetrical battle against steel on wheels, especially where heavily-congested intersections offer little traffic-flow guidance and indeed introduce ambiguities that undermine road safety; and
  • We must keep ourselves informed concerning our right to ride and our road responsibilities so that we can rebut false attributions of fault (and thus correctly assign liability) and push back against popular and official mischaracterizations of cyclists as inexperienced or irresponsible road users.

When faced with official bias as seems in this case, we have to remind law enforcement of our rights and responsibilities. Now, Mr. Mar has filed an amended report of the collision, and we’ll follow his case to see whether this road warrior (who is an experienced rider) can set the record straight.

We’ll also keep up the pressure on our own city officials to create safer conditions for cyclists. Keep an eye open for updates here concerning the upcoming, late-November meeting with the city’s ad-hoc Bike Plan Update Committee.

Elected policymakers, Transportation division officials, and traffic engineers each have their role to play to make intersections like South Beverly/Olympic more safe for cyclists. That they are not doing so is simply not satisfactory, as Mr. Mar found on his simple commute through town.