Minnesota sees increase in bicycle fatalitiesby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
Bicycle commuting is up by double-digit numbers in Minneapolis, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey. The number of city residents who say they bike to work grew by nearly 50 percent between 2006 and 2007.
While the city is touting those numbers, there's a downside to having more bike commuters on the road. Already this year, bike fatalities in Minnesota are more than double what they were for all of last year.
St. Paul, Minn. — There were four biking fatalities in Minnesota last year. Already this year, there have been nine.
The most recent death happened near the intersection of Snelling and Summit avenues in St. Paul over the weekend.
Virginia Heuer, 52, was struck by a vehicle while on a recreational ride. The location is now marked with a growing number of cards, flowers and other mementoes on the curb near where the crash occurred.
The location is also marked with a ghost bike, a bicycle painted white placed by biking enthusiasts to memorialize the victim.
Michael Mouw stopped at the memorial honoring the victim.
"I just had two close calls coming over here and that's why I stopped here," Mouw said. "Literally at the intersection of Summit avenue and where this frontage road intersects."
Mouw wears a helmet and bright, reflective clothing. He's been a bicycling commuter between Minneapolis and St. Paul for 17 years.
Mouw's route to work is Summit avenue, a safe route, he contends, especially now with clearly marked bike lanes.
However, the frontage road he's describing is a textbook example of a hazard for vehicles and bicyclists. Narrow frontage roads run along Summit at several locations.
There are stop signs where the frontage road merges with Summit. However, a vehicle driver stopping and then merging on to Summit avenue crosses the bicycle lane.
Mouw said the close calls he had illustrate the problem.
"Obviously people aren't paying attention to where the bike lane crosses the frontage road," Mouw said.
Numbers from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety illustrate what happens when riders and drivers aren't alert.
In 2007, there were 1,020 bike crashes in Minnesota, an 8 percent increase from 2006. The Department of Public Safety said failure to yield right of way is the leading contributing factor in crashes. Other factors include bicyclists disregarding both stop signs and stop lights.
Mary Nesestuen said vehicle drivers need to be reminded that bikes have a right to be on the road. Nesestuen is the director of the Minnesota Department of Transportation's Share the Road initiative, a bicycle safety promotion project,
"Bicycles are legal vehicles on Minnesota roads, and bicyclists therefore have all the rights and responsibilities of a motorist," Nesestuen said.
Though wearing a helmet does not guarantee a bicyclist will survive a crash, it increases survival chances and reduces risk of head injury, a leading cause of death among bicyclists.
Randy Swart's search for a better bike helmet for his Washington, D.C.-area bike club three decades ago made him a helmet advocate.
The 65-year-old Swart, a retired federal government official, has created an encyclopedic Web site over the years filled with biking information. He said everyone will develop better habits with more bicyclists on the road.
"We'll all get safer when there are more cyclists out there because part of the problem now is people just don't look for cyclists because they don't expect them to be there," Swart said.
As for bike helmets, Swart said 21 states, the District of Columbia, and 188 cities have laws requiring some form of helmet use.
Minnesota is one of 14 states, along with its neighbors Iowa, Wisconsin and the Dakotas, with no bicycle helmet requirements even for children.
There are countless miles of roadway in Minnesota that pose potentially fatal risks to unwary or inexperienced bicyclists. This unsafe arrangement in St. Paul, with frontage road merging onto Summit avenue that forces vehicles to cross a bike lane, is but one example.
Add to the mix bicyclists who don't obey the rules of the road with vehicle drivers who assume they own the road, and the prospect for more cyclist injuries and fatalities remains high.
- All Things Considered, 09/30/2008, 5:20 p.m.