Bicyclists beware: Vision of a fatality-free Sacramento could be elusive

On eve of region’s Bike Month, report shows bikers to blame in 76 percent of injury accidents

The next urban bicycling class is 6 p.m. April 27 inside City Hall.

In 2015, a bicyclist was killed on an unlit section of Marconi Avenue while riding against traffic, at night, without lights or a helmet. It was the sort of accident that makes the Vision Zero initiative, Sacramento’s goal of having no one die on its roads by 2027, a bit difficult to achieve.

“This guy was crazy,” said Dan Klinker, the county’s alternative-modes coordinator, at the April 20 meeting of the City County Bicycle Advisory Committee. “That’s why I don’t think we’ll ever get to zero.”

The bicyclist was one of five killed in unincorporated Sacramento County, four of whom weren’t wearing helmets, according to a report on bicyclist injury collisions in those areas for 2015.

In the incorporated city, four bicyclists and eight pedestrians were killed by vehicles in 2015, according to police figures. Those numbers doubled last year, with eight bicyclists and 18 pedestrians killed.

Police recorded the most recent bicycle accident in the city on April 13: At 7:25 a.m. on Arden Way, a bicyclist sustained minor injuries after being struck by a vehicle. The driver initially left the scene, but returned after realizing damage had been done to her vehicle, police say.

Jennifer Dolon Wyant, the city’s active transportation program specialist, is still committed to achieving Vision Zero’s ambitious goal. For a report that will be available this summer, she has begun analyzing modern data to generate countermeasures that diminish the greatest threats. But she admits these projects are contingent upon transportation funds, which she said are less available than in comparably populated cities such as Oakland.

At last week’s meeting, Klinker noted that the three fatalities in the county report involved rear-endings—two were felony hit-and-runs, in which he suspects the drivers may have been under the influence. The other crash occurred because the driver was on the phone. All three put the driver at fault.

Another explanation for these collisions may be confusion. In a phone interview, Wyant explained that many drivers and bicyclists aren’t fully aware of the specific rules of the road, one of which holds that drivers are supposed to merge into the bike lane before making a right turn. “It’s not an improper movement, but actually legal and preferred,” she noted.

Wyant has begun teaching urban bicycling classes (often to less experienced riders) to raise awareness of these laws, such as bicyclists currently being allowed to ride on all sidewalks. In the future, the city may prohibit riders from some sidewalks, but they will be clearly marked with signs and approved only if there’s a “low-stress bikeway” available and a “demonstrated or probable conflict” between pedestrians and bicyclists, she wrote in a follow-up email.

The classes also highlight city codes on equipping lights and reflective gear, wearing only one headphone while listening to music and riding in the direction of traffic on the right side of the roadway.

The education is necessary as, according to the county report, bicyclists were at fault 76 percent of the time in the 244 crashes recorded. In 61 percent of cases, they were riding on the wrong side of the street. This tended to result in slower-speed crashes by turning drivers who don’t expect bicyclists to be going the opposite direction of traffic or on the wrong side of the road. (City figures were unavailable.)

To accomplish Vision Zero’s goals, Wyant is interested in crosswalk stings, in which plainclothes police officers enter an intersection on foot, then give any unyielding cars a warning or a ticket.

In the unincorporated county, 40 pedestrians also died in vehicle-related collisions between 2012 and 2014—33 at night and 30 that were partly the pedestrian’s fault. (Klinker speculated jaywalking may have been largely responsible.). Klinker said the county already has three projects “on the books,” costing $7 million, to heighten safety by fixing gaps in the sidewalks, among other improvements.

Still, the county report left room for doubt about Vision Zero. The fifth recorded fatality of 2015 occurred during heavy rains when a helmeted bicyclist collided with a pickup truck after they turned into a lane at the same time. Both parties thought there had been a break in traffic—the type of misread that seems almost inevitable as long as humans are steering their transportation.