Taking a Closer Look at Beverly Hills Bike Collisions

Traffic & Parking bike collision report from BHPD
Collision figures provided to our Traffic & Parking Commission from the Beverly Hills Police during the Pilot bike routes policy discussion. Not too much detail here!

Bike Blogger Ted Rogers has made it his personal mission to document bicycle-involved fatalities in Southern California. His Biking In LA blog is a running tally of the deaths: 44 cycling fatalities in Southern California to date this year and 15 in just five weeks alone. “That’s an utterly unacceptable average of three deaths every week,” he says, and we agree. Collisions have been on our mind since our Traffic & Parking Commission waved away cyclists’ safety concerns back in May without spending much time talking about them.

Safety should be paramount in any discussion about traffic flow. We count vehicles and purport to accommodate future travel patterns with our General Plan circulation element. But Beverly Hills doesn’t count cyclists and hardly accommodates non-motor road users in our transportation planning. So our transportation planners have scant insight into which improvements might make two-wheeled travel safer in our city. But one thing is certain: Beverly Hills has its share of bike-involved collisions. We must chalk up to luck (and perhaps our legendary congestion that slows traffic) that Beverly Hills doesn’t have more fatalities.

But city officials don’t pay enough attention to serious injury collisions. Recently the commission reviewed a Bike Route Pilot program administered by the Transportation division of Public Works that would implement bike-related safety improvements on key corridors. In the Pilot process, transportation planners and two commission members met with cyclists and decided on five routes that were then taken to commission for review. The commission recommended three possible bike routes to City Council – but not those most often used by cyclists. And they did so without fully considering the record of bike-involved collisions in the city.

Collision report for Traffic & Parking Pilot process
The only collision data that our commission referenced when talking about bike route improvements.

Wouldn’t you think that data about bike-involved collisions would figure into a transportation planning process? We are talking safety, right? Well, you would be mistaken. When the commission reviewed proposed routes, they had in hand only cursory data on bike-involved collisions (only the date, time, location, and type of impact). The Transportation division summarized the collision summaries in this table (at right.)

But the table barely hints at the problem conditions that cyclists face daily. It hardly identifies factors that could be addressed in order to decrease the incidence of serious injuries.

If you’re asking how do we know what the commission reviewed, we filed a public records request to find out. We’ve long been critical of the Pilot program process simply because it seemed like a token effort separate from the transportation planning that our city does.

What Kind of Data is Available?

Road safety is key, and transportation planning is data-driven. We look at traffic volume and flow patterns and, of course, collisions. Data is important. That’s why the state obligates police departments to report every documented collision (i.e., where a report is filed) across a range of seventy-six factors, including whether it is bike-involved and includes a bicyclist fatality.

SWITRS collision data 2005-2009 screenshot
We took the time to crunch the data for Beverly Hills. Why didn’t our transportation planning professionals? Why didn’t our Traffic & Parking Commission demand it?

The CHP makes the raw data available upon request and we’ve asked for it and received it in the past. That means that our city could ask for a specially-generated data set too. Or, our transportation planners could consult the CHP’s 2005-2009 dataset (published on the website) to get a fuller picture – just like we did.

But the data in the simple table prepared for the commission hardly gives a complete picture. This data covers only two years, for example, so we simply don’t know from this brief snapshot if we even trending in the right direction safety-wise. Would it make sense for our transportation planners to look a little deeper, beyond a simple tally, for descriptive information about these collisions for the Commission’s evaluation? Yes. But the data not provided to our commission include these key factors:

  • Primary Collision Factor
  • PCF Violation Code
  • PCF Violation
  • Hit And Run
  • Severe Injury count
  • Other Visible Injury count

But we thumbed through those 39 reports and pulled by hand data that tell us a bit more about these collisions. We’re not on a city salary. We’re not getting city benefits. We’re simply tired of suffering lousy road conditions. Why can’t the city do this as part of this transportation planning effort? And what does it say about the diligence behind the Pilot? To us it suggests bad faith planning.

Bike-Involved Collisions in Beverly Hills: A Closer Look at Factors

In 2010 there were 25 collisions serious enough to warrant a police report. (Summaries are enumerated in that table.) Yet through five meetings with the bike community and three public hearings on the Pilot, data on collisions came up only on one occasion (and discussed in summary fashion by the Traffic & Parking Commission.

But four of the 2010 collisions were felony hits-and-run. That wasn’t mentioned by commissioners because it wasn’t included in the summary of the summary reports provided to commission. When 15% of drivers in serious bike-involved collisions flee without rendering assistance, don’t we have a significant pubic safety problem on our hands? That never entered into the discussion on where to put bike lanes or whether we need improvements to intersections.

The commissioners did make a significant issue out of cyclists who run traffic lights and stop signs. And we know it’s a problem; the minority of cyclists who blow red lights give bike advocacy a bad name. But these reports show that only 2 of 25 collisions (in 2010) were attributable to failure to stop. We’ve also heard from the commissioners about the danger to pedestrians posed by errant cyclists, but here too the data show a different story: only one pedestrian was injured.

What else might the commissioners like to know? In 2009 and 2010 there were 39 total reported collisions and seven of them (18%) injured a minor. And men beware: fully 36 of 39 incidents resulted in an injured male while only three (10% ) included an injured female. Now, we can’t say if men are disproportionately more likely to be injured because while more men do ride but we don’t know how many more ride. Nevertheless, the figures reflect state data that show men are more likely to be injured (and middle-aged men in particular are more likely to be killed in bike-involved collisions).

What do these collisions say about the drivers? We know that motoring in California knows no gender bias, yet collisions in Beverly Hills in 2009 and 2010 show that men are more likely to be behind the wheel for a bike-involved collision – in fact men were behind the wheel more than 60% of the time. With women behind the wheel for only 40% of collisions, that means that male drivers are half again as likely as female drivers to be involved in a car-bike collision. (Note: only 31 of 39 summary reports document gender.)

Because the data are incomplete and the sample size small (n=31) we hazard to make too many inferences. But like our commissioners we can privilege anecdotal observations. If we went by our gut experience, why we would agree that male drivers are disproportionately likely to harass, intimidate, or drive in an unsafe manner, and even more likely to do so when driving a large SUV. We might even go out on a limb and say that black is the color of choice for our more irresponsible drivers.

But the gut feeling is no way to make transportation policy, of course, so let’s return to the data. And the data say it’s not all about the drivers. Riding the wrong side of the road was called a factor by the responding officer in 9 of 25 collisions in 2010. Yet the collision report summaries show only 1 citation for a violation of code 21650.1:

A bicycle operated on a roadway, or the shoulder of a highway, shall be operated in the same direction as vehicles are required to be driven upon the roadway.

Riding on the wrong side of the street is a real problem. Often collisions occur at intersections where a driver may look left for oncoming traffic and not expect a cyclist from the right. For sure, any cyclist riding against traffic is misinformed about the law or at least ignorant of the consequences. But our commission didn’t address whether wrong-side riding was a problem, or if it could be reduced through better pavement markings or signage because the summary collision data provided by our police department was not presented that way. Here’s why this problem in particular matters: every intersection is a conflict point and Beverly Hills doubles them up because every street has a corresponding alley. That means that many road segments are bisected by alleys which often are not even properly marked for a full stop at the sidewalk.

Aggressive driving, inattentive motorists, wrong-way riding, and poorly marked intersections and other factors contribute to making our streets less-safe for cyclists. So it’s not surprising we have so many collisions. But what do the actual traffic citations issued for these collisions say about the causes?

What the Violation Citations Say

The reported data for 2009 and 2010 show that the most common violation (8 of 33 total citations) was the familiar section 21202 (a):

Any person operating a bicycle upon a roadway at a speed less than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction at that time shall ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway…

Of all the conditions that make cycling problematic in Beverly Hills, can it really be that the cyclist is at fault most often when car meets bike? Most of the road segments in Beverly Hills are too narrow to share with motor vehicles, according to the state law. About 14 feet in width offers room for say a cyclist and a truck or bus to coexist in a lane. But in our estimation about 95% of our road miles are about 10 or 11 feet. That’s simply not wide enough to share. Yet failure to keep right is the most common citation? Our commission didn’t question it because their summary of the report summaries didn’t show it.

Sharing is especially hazardous when the speed difference between the cyclist and passing car is large. (Recall how motorists scramble down Olympic and Wilshire and parts of Santa Monica Boulevard.) These roads cry out for a buffered bike lane – words that never crossed the lips of commissioners.

The prevalence of this cited violation suggests a misapplication of the vehicle code.

Of course there are exceptions to this requirement (like road hazards as we indicated in a recent post on Santa Monica Boulevard). But in cases where cyclists are cited, we’ve found that s

Sometimes a responding officer may not consider the entirely of the code section and in searching for a violation simply write up the cyclist for not hugging the curb. But that’s not the intent of the law. Let’s read the rest of section 21202:

…shall ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway except under any of the following situations: (1) When overtaking and passing another bicycle or vehicle proceeding in the same direction. (2) When preparing for a left turn at an intersection or into a private road or driveway. (3) When reasonably necessary to avoid conditions (including, but not limited to, fixed or moving objects, vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards, or substandard width lanes) that make it unsafe to continue along the right-hand curb or edge…

Maybe it’s time we took a lesson from Los Angeles, Culver City and Santa Monica, all of which have stepped up officer training to parse the particulars of section 21202.

Another problem is that riders too are often not familiar with this section. As eight riders were cited in conjunction with collisions, it seems likely that the cyclist was both injured and cited (adding insult to injury as they say). That puts the burden on them to show that they were not at fault even if they may well have been riding in accord with the law. Unfamiliarity with the language of 21202 leaves them unprepared to demonstrate that they might have been riding lawfully in a lane too narrow to share. And if those cyclists sued to recover compensation, the citation may compromise recovery.

The second most commonly cited violation (7 of the 33 total) was 21804(a):

The driver of any vehicle about to enter or cross a highway from any public or private property, or from an alley, shall yield the right-of-way to all traffic, as defined in Section 620, approaching on the highway close enough to constitute an immediate hazard, and shall continue to yield the right-of-way to that traffic until he or she can proceed with reasonable safety.

Were these collisions the result of drivers pulling out in front of cyclists, or cyclists failing to yield to oncoming traffic? We’ve gone over the handlebars ourselves when a motorist had pulled out suddenly, but then we’ve also pulled into traffic carelessly too. Because the digested reports don’t specify to whom a citation was issued, we don’t know. More importantly, our commissioners didn’t ask.

There is one clearly unambiguous action that caused 4 of the 33 collisions: motorists (or their passengers) opening the car door into a cyclist’s path (aka ‘dooring’). Dooring accounted for the third most frequently cited violation of the law (4 of the 33 total). Section 22517 says:

No person shall open the door of a vehicle on the side available to moving traffic unless it is reasonably safe to do so and can be done without interfering with the movement of such traffic, nor shall any person leave a door open on the side of a vehicle available to moving traffic for a period of time longer than necessary to load or unload passengers.

Motorists are required to look. But an experienced cyclist knows that most motorists don’t and so the preservation instinct should kick in: simply ride outside of the door zone.  Cyclists have been killed when riding in the door zone. So we want to say it again: Ride outside of the door zone. Even if it means controlling the adjacent travel lane.

Our commissioners didn’t even mention these four dooring collisions. They didn’t have that tally because nobody pulled it out of the data. Yet the commission struck from our bike lane wish list many of the road segments (in busy commercial districts) that practically beg for a segregated bike lane. Speaking from experience that the commissioners evidently don’t have, we dodge doors a time or two a week in Beverly Hills so we know these four incidents vastly under-report the problem. But to work from our gut  wouldbe relying on anecdotal evidence – a no no in transportation planning.

Other cited violations include failure to signal (3 citations) and running the stop sign (2). Section 22450 (a) says:

The driver of any vehicle approaching a stop sign at the entrance to, or within, an intersection shall stop at a limit line, if marked, otherwise before entering the crosswalk on the near side of the intersection. If there is no limit line or crosswalk, the driver shall stop at the entrance to the intersecting roadway…

Well we all know this instinctively as drivers, but need this apply to cyclists? The bicycle is described in the vehicle code as a ‘device’ and not a vehicle. There are growing calls that we shouldn’t require cyclists to abide stop signs like motorists must. First, there’s the proportionate harm theory. When bikes weigh only 1/200th that of a car, and in a collision do so much less damage, should cyclists be required to stop, or merely to yield the right of way (like they do in Idaho)? Should the same penalty apply when the risk of damage or injury is so disproportionately small?

Then there’s the efficiency argument. Physicists note that starting from a full stop requires considerable energy to overcome inertia. And slowing from cruising speed wastes valuable forward momentum. Cyclists know this only too well. Why not introduce a tweak to section 22450 to allow cyclists at today’s 4-way stops to slow, look, listen, and proceed? This could have a profound impact here in Beverly Hills where closely-spaced 4-way stop intersections impede through travel by cyclists.

Our own Councilwoman Bosse noted the prevalence of stop signs (about 25 across Charleville) in opposing Charleville and Carmelita as bike routes. Whatever the resolution, today the relatively few citations for this violation across these 39 collisions in 2009 and 2010 appears to undermine our commissioner’s gut feeling that rogue cyclists create a hazard.

Our Perspective on our City’s Failure to Plan for Cyclists

Recently we talked about holding cities like Beverly Hills accountable when they fail to provide safer roads for cyclists. But our Traffic & Parking Commission in its Pilot program review flipped that concept on its head. This city body, tasked with road safety, focused instead on shielding the city from liability. Several commission gave the thumbs-down to sharrows on our most heavily-traveled local streets because they might offer cyclists a false sense of security and expose the city to liability in the event of a collision. By that logic we wouldn’t install crosswalks. What if someone crosses the street in a crosswalk and is subsequently struck? Doesn’t the crosswalk offer a false sense of security?

If our streets are really so perilous that a sharrow could lull cyclists into being insufficiently vigilant against irresponsible drivers, then we need on-street bike facilities sooner rather than later. And more of them rather than fewer (as recommended by the commission). That the commission elevated liability over safety is a priorities reshuffle straight out of Bizarro World. Yet it’s no surprise: anecdotes offered by the 3-2 majority clearly indicated that they viewed the cycling through an automobile windshield. While that’s their experience and frame of reference, they are tasked with advising on mobility and safety for all road users, not just motorists.

Not making cyclist safety the primary issue is reason enough to question the legitimacy of the Bike Route Pilot process. But there were other oversights too. Commissioners never referred to our General Plan’s circulation element (the city’s guiding planning document for mobility). They never once mentioned our current Bicycle Master Plan dating to 1977 but re-adopted as orphaned appendix in 2010). And commissioners never even nodded to Complete Streets state guidelines intended to ensure access for all road users (including cyclists).

We need is a Traffic & Parking Commission that views mobility through the lens of public health, safety, and welfare rather than concern itself with traffic flow and parking permits. We need to reframe this process around safety in order to pinpoint problems in need of a remedy.

Buffered bike lane in Santa Monica
New buffered bike lane on Santa Monica’s 8th street. Why can’t we have one in Beverly Hills?

Cities like Santa Monica seem fully able to recognize the need to protect cyclists on city streets. Witness their new buffered bike lane (right) near the main library. One of the things that cyclists called for in meetings with our officials was bike lanes where car-bike conflict is most acute, like on Crescent Drive, where the street is plenty wide and the numerous public parking garages create chaos at peak times. Why can’t our city install a buffered bike lane on Crescent? We can of course if we so choose, but this commission, blind to the safety issues, recommended it not be a bike lane candidate corridor.

Here we reviewed collision summaries for 39 incidents in 2009 and 2010 in order to dig deeper into the circumstances behind the collisions because we knew our transportation planners and Traffic & Parking Commission didn’t. Summarized summaries of collision reports are simply not sufficient to appreciate the hazards that cyclists face. But that was the data provided to our officials who gave the thumbs-down on safety improvements. We can do better.