Bicyclist vs. Driver: Who's at Fault?

Redwood City has numerous projects to make roads safer and more commutable for both drivers and bikers, but even these improvements can’t solve some of the tension between the groups.

Despite the clang of construction crews on Veterans Boulevard and the sloshing of paint for new bike lanes on East Bayshore Road, you can still hear bicyclists' complaints about motorists’ ability to share the road, and simultaneously, drivers' rants about how oblivious cyclists are.

“I am tired of [cyclists] cruising through stop signs and red lights like they don't exist!” said Redwood City resident Renee Rodriguez. “Drivers have to adhere to stop signs, pedestrians and follow all rules, so should those on bikes.”

Billy James, a cyclist and crossing guard at , said that cars all over the city are constantly speeding, but particularly parents who are taking their children to school, one of the most dangerous places to be speeding.

“It drives me crazy!” James said.

Back in June, a riding his bike at Farm Hill Boulevard and McGarvey Avenue, but Redwood City police say the cyclist was at fault for making a sudden left turn from the second right lane, cutting in front of the car.

Another scuffle happened in April due to . Three men and the cyclist pulled into a 7-Eleven parking lot to settle their road rage, where the suspects severely beat the 35-year-old Redwood City cyclist.

But if the bickering can cease for just a moment, one look around the city would note the numerous improvements occurring right as they speak.


The city’s current projects

In Redwood City, the most widely used form of transportation is by car, according to city engineer Christian Hammack. The freedom to drive whenever and wherever in a car, especially in more sprawling neighborhoods like Emerald Hills or the Farm Hill neighborhood, is a luxury that many residents won’t relinquish.

But concerns of increasing carbon emissions have urged drivers to log more miles on their bicycles rather than their cars, increasing the number of cyclists on the road.

Traffic engineering in the Bay Area, and even the country, is undergoing a shift in how roads are viewed. Roads are no longer just for cars, but for cyclists as well.

City engineer Kevin Fehr added that rising gas prices have caused drivers to turn toward their bikes for transportation.

Public transportation agencies like Caltrain have worked to accommodate this increase. Caltrain recently completed a $300,00 project in June that will ensure that .

For those not transporting their bikes on the Caltrain, they can check out bikes to ride to their final destination if that location is too far to walk to, according to Redwood City spokesperson Malcolm Smith. This pilot Bike Share program will launch in early 2012, while city staff are still identifying heavily trafficked areas for the bike pods.

The city has also begun implementing new bike lanes in high-traffic areas. As part of a $1.4 million , the city is painting new bike lanes on Veterans Boulevard and East Bayshore Road, a $14,000 project. The city received $950,000 in grants from the Federal Surface Transportation Program and will use “Measure A” transportation funds to finance the rest of the road improvements.

“The general intent was initially to re-surface the roads,” said project engineer Kevin Fehr. “But neither street had bike facilities so we took this opportunity.”

In other areas, the city has acknowledged the need for biking and pedestrian improvements, but did not immediately decide on bike lanes. Redwood City received grants from The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and the City/County Association of Government (C/CAG) of San Mateo County for three future projects:

  • The 2.5 mile stretch on Hudson Street between Woodside Road and Whipple Avenue. Designs haven’t been finalized, and the project is still in conceptual form, according to Fehr.
  • The 1.1 mile stretch on Brewster Avenue from El Camino Real to Alameda de las Pulgas around
  • An improved pathway between Whipple Avenue and Bair Island behind the old cinema

However, widening roads for bike lanes, James said, can actually be detrimental to all commuters. What cities should do, instead, is put their streets on “road diets,” or narrow roads in order to reduce cars’ speeds.

“All it takes is paint,” James said. These road diets lead to “complete streets,” where all types of commuters: drivers, cyclists and pedestrians can share the road, he said.


Missing: Education

But coats of paint might not be the panacea to this pervasive problem around the city. It may have to begin with education to create a mutual understanding between cyclists and motorists.

The Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition (SVBC) has created the program “Share the Road” to promote an awareness of one group toward the other. The group created a 20-30 minute Share the Road Powerpoint presentation that covers safety issues to spur dialogue between the two groups.

The Peninsula Traffic Congestion Alliance also provides pamphlets on the rules of the road for cyclists.

“I’ve seen cyclists riding on the wrong side of the road because they think they’re safer if they can see oncoming cars,” James said. “People need to be educated.”

California Vehicle Code says that bicyclists have a right to ride in the traffic lane unless they’re going slower than the speed of traffic.

“We’re not blocking traffic, we are traffic,” James said.

Far from Perfect

Residents like Nick Kibre, a transportation blogger for Redwood City Patch, said that the city is bike-friendly, but could stand some further improvements.

He pointed to Middlefield Road near the North Fair Oaks area as a particularly difficult road to bike on, and a street whose pavement could use some resurfacing. He added that cars pull in and out of parking to head to businesses.

Peninsula cyclist Andrew Boone wrote an opinion piece about in this particular North Fair Oaks neighborhood.

Two years ago, the city council approved a Complete Streets commission that would formalize the work that active city cyclists like James and others do on a more casual basis every few months. But when cities were slammed with budget cuts, this commission was tabled. Instead, the SVBC formed a working group to provide input on bicycle-related projects to Redwood City staff.

Though these commissions comprise purely of volunteers, they still require a city staff liaison. This eats into city staff time that still translate to costs. Last month, the city even to save a total of $150,000.

Fehr said the city is constantly looking at different locations where to implement improvements. The city selects projects based on feedback from residents, the council and various organizations.

“We’re overloaded with projects we’re doing at the moment,” Fehr said. 

To manage these projects, the city is currently in the hiring process for a Senior Transportation Coordinator, who will receive a handsome six-figure salary (see attached pdf for job description.)

While cities continue their infrastructure upgrades, it’s up to residents to ultimately create more harmony on the road. Sharing the road and being mindful of other commuters is a simple way for the community to help reduce the number of accidents.

David Huntsman August 05, 2011 at 08:35 PM
(...continued) While cyclists generally take to the right - even riding on the shoulder (which is not part of the road) - out of self-preservation and courtesy, they are not obliged to do so when it is not practicable. Once in the lane, a cyclist has the same obligation to "pull over for faster traffic" as any slow-moving vehicle does under CVC 21656 which provides: "On a two-lane highway where passing is unsafe because of traffic in the opposite direction or other conditions, a slow-moving vehicle, including a passenger vehicle, behind which five or more vehicles are formed in line, shall turn off the roadway at the nearest place designated as a turnout by signs erected by the authority having jurisdiction over the highway, or wherever sufficient area for a safe turnout exists, in order to permit the vehicles following it to proceed. As used in this section a slow-moving vehicle is one which is proceeding at a rate of speed less than the normal flow of traffic at the particular time and place." (Note the language 'traffic at the particular time and space' which sheds some light on what is meant by 'normal speed of traffic' in CVC 21202. What I mean is, I think 'traffic' includes bikes when there are bikes on the road.)
Zeke Mead August 05, 2011 at 08:36 PM
This appears to be another case where education is something we can control. Why don't we start with a program to hit the schools with (at an appropriate age - 4th grade?) where we give them the information needed. Unfortunately I wasn't there when my son attended a school assembly where RWCPD came in and told the kids (all 3-8th grade) that they SHOULD ride on the sidewalk..... Again, I'm trusting the recollection of a 10 year old boy, but I've stressed with him since day one that he rides in the street with traffic, etc and we do so all the time together. We could also give everyone who passes the course a "Rider's License." Bicycles are only going to become more popular so we might as well get out in front of this thing. Thanks for the article and responses.
David Huntsman August 05, 2011 at 10:02 PM
Zeke, very much so. But, one of the challenges is inconsistent laws regarding cycling on the sidewalk from one city to the next. Even with the same city there can be inconsistency. In Newport Beach, the City outlaws cycling on the sidewalk (other than a tricycle) unless specifically permitted. Signage is rare, and how many kids would think to look for signs before riding through a new neighborhood to a friend's house?
Reality Check August 05, 2011 at 10:08 PM
Counter-intuitively to many, bicycling on sidewalks is generally far more dangerous than on the street. That's why it's expressly prohibited in many cities. Since they're generally viewed as figures of authority when it comes to such matters, it's disappointing how often police are wrong/mistaken when they dispense free advice to bicyclists. Like many lay/civilian motorists and bicyclists, I think it stems from viewing the world with a motorist-oriented bias.
Zeke Mead August 05, 2011 at 10:55 PM
I'm pretty sure, almost positive, bicycles are forbidden on sidewalks by the CVC. Spirit of the law being what it is, a four year old learning to ride for the first time on a residential sidewalk is not going to get a ticket. The challenge with riding on the sidewalk is three fold for everyone. 1) In a residential area, people and cars going in and out of the sidewalk don't always anticipate a faster moving bicycle. 2) Bicyclists leaving the sidewalk at "riding" speed to cross a street leaving motorists no time to react to something they couldn't have seen coming. 3) In commercial areas with high foot traffic, store doors opening immediately onto the sidewalk, etc, it is just a bad idea to try and have all that happening in a 3 to 6 foot width or more. Some cities have their own municipal code violation for riding on a sidewalk so they can cite people with the muni code and most or all of the fines paid go to the city, not the state like a CVC code violation. The city probably has to have additional signs posted, etc, but I've only seen it enforced in a downtown business type district.
David Huntsman August 06, 2011 at 12:14 AM
Zeke, the CVC reserves the right to ban or regulate sidewalk cycling to local authorities under section 21100(h). The State of California does not ban sidewalk cycling. It is anticipated that bicycles will use the entire right-of-way, including the sidewalk, unless a city says "off the sidewalks".
billyjames August 06, 2011 at 12:51 AM
Zeke: great to hear from you. Stacie: I've seen lots of hair-splitting re CVC 21202, "practicable" and practical, which D. Huntsman differentiates above.
David Huntsman August 06, 2011 at 01:04 AM
Just a thought re: education. What if, from the 4th grade, kids were taught that someday you might drive and, if you do, you have to be watchful for cyclists?
billyjames August 09, 2011 at 04:12 AM
BMJ POLLS READERS ABOUT COMPULSORY HELMET USE FOR ADULT CYCLISTS -> According to a July 27th British Medical Journal blog entry, "Last week the bmj.com poll asked 'Should it be compulsory for adult cyclists to wear helmets?' 68% of respondents voted no, out of a total 1,439 votes cast. The question triggered an interesting debate..." Source: http://bit.ly/r22cnD
Reality Check August 09, 2011 at 05:43 PM
Helmets, of course, have nothing to do with reducing crashes or unpleasant motorist-bicyclist encounters. You'd never know this from a certain class of whiny motorists who seem to like to make a point of how this or that bicyclist "wasn't even wearing a helmet (gasp!)." Interesting item about the Dutch, who are both the highest per capita bicycle riding nation, and the same time seem almost allergic to helmets: Getting These Cyclists to Use Helmets Is Like Tilting at Windmills http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304248704575574250616160146.html
Goodgulf August 10, 2011 at 05:08 PM
@ Jack - It is not illegal for cyclists to ride side by side unless: The lane (Not including door zones, gutters, shoulder, etc.) is at leas 14' wide, and the road is only two lanes wide with a double yellow line.
Goodgulf August 10, 2011 at 05:16 PM
"The MAJORITY of people riding bicycles on our roads are EXERCISING" "bikers rarely stop at stop signs" Jack - Can you provide data to back up ANY of your claims here? "take a bike path" I doubt there are any bike paths in the bay area. There are MUPs (Multi-use paths) which are statistically more dangerous per mile than roads. There certainly aren't any bike trails in the Sacramento valley, but if any exist in the bay are, please let us know where they are, I'm sure we'd like to ride them. BTW - It's difficult to ride MUPs to where you want to go, as generally, only roads go where you want to go. How about you only drive on the freeway? Think. "They ride abreast in groups on roads causing drivers to slow behind them" Again, riding 3 abreast is perfectly legal in almost all situations. "they ride on the sidewalks and crosswalks instead of walking their bikes." This is not against the CVC. It's perfectly legal, unless a local ordinance prohibits it. "roads made for cars" No, road are public rights of way. Although all people have a RIGHT top use them, only automobile drivers have a privileged to use them if they meet certain criteria. You may wish to try communicating with less vitriol some time.
Goodgulf August 10, 2011 at 05:17 PM
Yes, driver and cyclist education is key. Nothing seems to be being done about this much in my area, although at least they have the occasional "Share the Road" sign up now.
Goodgulf August 10, 2011 at 05:19 PM
I was going to post my annoyance at the made up second part of that quote too...you beat me to it. Wonder where the author came up with that? Wish they'd correct it.
Goodgulf August 10, 2011 at 05:21 PM
This is my attitude as well. In the Netherlands and Germany they actually have a legal policy for road use called "Strict Liability" which basically enforces this. If a diver hits a cyclist, the driver is at fault, period. It does not matter if the cyclist was riding legally or not. The same applies to pedestrian cyclist collisions as well. The cyclist is automatically at fault. It worth noting that countries with this law have *dramatically* lower pedestrian, cyclist, AND motorist fatality rates per mile traveled.
Goodgulf August 10, 2011 at 05:22 PM
I am very close to getting a place there myself. It's arguably the best we have to offer in this country in terms of pedestrian and cyclist safety.
Goodgulf August 10, 2011 at 05:28 PM
Wrong way riding is so is THE worst things you can do to ride safely. Followed closely by sidewalk riding. However, riding with headphones does not appear to effect accident rates one way r the other by any of the data I have seen. If you think about it, you can hear traffic far better when riding with headphones on than when sitting in an insulated car with the radio going. This seems to actually be a non-issue, although it is illegal in CA. Helmets are statistically ineffective at preventing injuries in cyclist who ride at normal speeds, so they really are only effective at preventing contusions and so forth on younger / slower cyclists. I mean, I drink beer in front of my son and he doesn't get to. I drive my car and he doesn't get to. He has to go to school and I don't. What's the difference? Regardless, it's not really something to be concerned with from a safety perspective. It makes a very marginal difference in the outcome of accidents.
Goodgulf August 10, 2011 at 05:32 PM
Stacie - Here is the full code: 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 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, subject to the provisions of Section 21656. For purposes of this section, a "substandard width lane" is a lane that is too narrow for a bicycle and a vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane. (4) When approaching a place where a right turn is authorized. (b) Any person operating a bicycle upon a roadway of a highway, which highway carries traffic in one direction only and has two or more marked traffic lanes, may ride as near the left-hand curb or edge of that roadway as practicable. Keep in mind that NONE of this applies if the lane in question is less than 14' wide. In that situation, cyclist may (And are encouraged to by most cycling safety organizations) to take the whole lane.
Sharon Levin August 10, 2011 at 05:54 PM
Helmets are statistically ineffective?!?!?!! When a head hits a car, the pavement or anything else, I don't see that as ineffective. I remember being at the emergency room once and seeing a boy come in with his mother. He had been wearing a helmet, she had not. They were scrambling to help her and I remember seeing his face and thinking, "If we are trying to protect our children, then we have to remember to protect ourselves as well." He was absolutely panicked. I don't know what happened to his mom, but it didn't look good. Obviously wearing a helmet doesn't reduce the possibility of a crash, but it CAN reduce the affects of a crash.
Goodgulf August 10, 2011 at 05:59 PM
If it's any consolation I used to think the same thing. However, the data does not back that assumption up at all. Any increase in safety to the skin seems to be equally offset by the tendency to increase the chances of rotational brain injuries and also by the fact that you head gets hit more often (Because it is effectively "bigger" and more likely to hit the ground.). A lot of this is actually acknowledge by the helmet manufacturers. Particularly that they are not effective at anything over 12 MPH. There have been a whole slew of studies done on this. There is a whole SLEW of data out there if you are interested.
Sharon Levin August 10, 2011 at 06:01 PM
Then why did the Tour de France start requiring helmets after one of the riders died from head injuries?
Goodgulf August 10, 2011 at 06:28 PM
Sharon - You seem to want to reinforce your pre-conceived notions (That I once shared BTW) with an anecdotal evidence. This is how superstition works ("Since I started carrying this rabbit's foot, I haven't had a single bike accident.") but it is NOT how science works. There is a slew of peer-reviewed articles on the effectiveness and lack thereof of cycling helmets. You can choose to read these articles (Which are based on data, not anecdotes), or not. However, it's doubtful anyone here wants to just engage in pointless thought-experiments with you. However, here's a peice of anecdotal evidence / a thought experiment for you. If the evidence supported cycle helmets making cycling significantly safer, it seems doubtful that so many cycling enthusiasts, who are very aware of the dangers of cycling, and who would LIKE to believe that helmets made then statistically safer, would have looked at the data and changed their mind as has happened over the past 5 years or so. We have entire countries (Australia for one) that have made helmet use mandatory now, and the data (Years of it actually) is in. Their cyclists are not faring better than before.
Sharon Levin August 10, 2011 at 06:35 PM
I know way too many otherwise intelligent people who don't like the way helmets feel. I also know many people (yes, anecdotal evidence) who are very thankful they wear helmets because they have been in accidents, hit their heads and been okay. Very hard to believe that if their skulls had connected with the pavement without a helmet that they would have been fine. And, again, the Tour has made helmets mandatory and I believe they are doing so because of concern for the participants.
Goodgulf August 10, 2011 at 06:51 PM
OK, sounds like anecdotes is what you want, that's fine. I have freinds who do tarrot, so who am I to judge? Hey, since helmets makes riding so much safer, undoubtedly you can trace the fatality line in the FARS database that coincides with inreased helmet use right?
Goodgulf August 10, 2011 at 06:53 PM
Properly fit helmets are very comfortable,and cool nowadays...not sure what their issue with that is. Maybe they don't fit right? Regardless, I fail to see the connection between comfort and intelligence.
David Huntsman August 10, 2011 at 09:34 PM
Sharon, the debate over the merits of helmet use is a distraction to the issue of traffic safety. Surely, you are concerned for your children's safety and no one can argue about your own personal observations. But it is a separate issue, and good purposes get frustrated when it is raised out of context.
David Huntsman August 10, 2011 at 09:49 PM
One of these distractions is in police reports and news reports of motorist v. cyclist accidents. Even in cases where the cyclist's injuries are not head injuries, and the cyclist cannot possibly be at fault (for example, when the cyclist was not even on the road but instead on the shoulder/sidewalk), it is commonly noted whether the cyclist was wearing a helmet. This makes about as much sense as noting whether a pedestrian was wearing a helmet when a motorist jumps the curb and breaks the pedestrian's legs with a car.
Stacie Chan (Editor) August 12, 2011 at 09:05 PM
Another tidbit of information: I received a call back from the Redwood City Police Department Records Supervisor stating that there were 41 accidents between motorists and cyclists from Aug. 1 2010 to Aug. 1 2011.
Goodgulf August 12, 2011 at 09:07 PM
I wonder what the reporting rate for that actually is?..
David Huntsman August 25, 2011 at 05:20 PM
Redwood City cyclist killed in Menlo Park: http://pacifica.patch.com/articles/cyclist-64-critically-injured


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