Make our roads safe for bicycles

Two weeks ago, a car ran a red light and hit me while I was bicycling through downtown Decatur. I was lucky to survive. The driver was traveling about 30 mph. I suffered a fractured rib and many cuts and bruises.

These kinds of collisions happen far too often in metro Atlanta. The day before my collision, a car hit a woman walking across a different downtown Decatur street; she suffered serious injuries. In recent weeks, two cyclists in Cobb County have been victims of hit-and-run collisions. One was killed.

According to the Georgia Department of Transportation, Georgia ranks eighth among U.S. states with the most bicycle fatalities, despite the fact that the Atlanta region has among the lowest rate of bicycling in the country. Further, the Atlanta region is the 10th-most dangerous large metro area for pedestrians in the nation, according to the nonprofit group, Transportation for America.

The human body cannot withstand the impact of a fast-moving vehicle. Thus, pedestrians and bicyclists face higher fatality risks than car occupants.

For example, pedestrian collisions make up less than 1 percent of all Georgia crashes, but they result in 10 percent of all traffic deaths. Justice demands that we do more to protect Atlantans who rely on these low-cost, zero-emissions, physically active forms of transportation.

While I was recovering last week, public health organizations throughout the United States were promoting road safety as part of National Public Health Week. This year’s theme was, ironically, “Safety is NO Accident: Live Injury Free.” Road injuries are not accidents — we can prevent them from happening.

Atlanta’s transportation leaders should follow the example of the European nations advancing the “Vision Zero” road safety concept. This vision suggests that zero traffic fatalities are acceptable and that road systems must be designed for safety — especially for vulnerable pedestrians and cyclists. Countries like Sweden that have adopted this approach have seen marked safety improvements for all road users.

Zero traffic deaths may sound unrealistic. But, consider our approach to air travel. We do not tolerate aviation fatalities and when a plane wreck occurs, we expect government investigations and changes in laws. Further, to ensure aviation safety we accept long security screening lines.

In contrast, when we are behind the wheel, we expect lenient traffic law enforcement and no delays. Too often, the unintended consequence of our lax attitude toward road safety is an injury or death of an unprotected road user.

There are many ways to prevent bicyclist and pedestrian collisions. In the short term, we all need to take greater responsibility for knowing and following the rules of the road. While I’m upset that someone ran through a red light and hit me, the solution is not to assign blame and wag fingers. Drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists all make mistakes. Education and personal responsibility can only take us so far.

Ultimately, we need to invest in safe road environments that anticipate and account for our human propensity to error.

We need to fully implement Georgia’s 2010 Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Action Plan. This plan highlights a range of transportation policy, law enforcement, road user education and traffic engineering measures for ensuring bicycle and pedestrian safety in the state.

Some of the more promising actions the plan outlines include:

● Educating transportation professionals and engineering students on bike and pedestrian design and safety;

● Conducting speed and crosswalk enforcement at pedestrian safety hot spots;

● Identifying high bicycle and pedestrian crash locations and installing features that improve safety.

This plan is a solid starting place, though I believe it should more boldly address the need to reduce vehicle speeds in high pedestrian and bicycle areas, to enforce speed limits through speed cameras, and to further separate bicycles from cars and pedestrians.

We’re moving in the right direction. Last week, the Georgia Legislature passed House Bill 101, the “Better Biking Bill.” The law includes a measure requiring drivers to pass cyclists at a safe, three-foot distance. HB 101 was a good step, but safe roads are still a long way off. Let’s get to work.

Ben Gerhardstein lives in Decatur and commutes by bicycle 10 miles to Chamblee several days a week. He serves as adjunct faculty at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health and is a member of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition.