In Pittsburgh accidents, bicyclists not always to blame


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When two men died just a week apart while biking on Penn Avenue, the city mourned. Advocates called for greater safety and respect between motorists and cyclists. And for once, everyone on the city's cramped streets agreed.

That's the exception, not the rule. After most crashes, the gripes against bicyclists -- how they run red lights, speed down one-way streets and cut across sidewalks -- lead many people to assume they are more likely to be the cause of crashes than the motorists they cut off.

But six years of crash data obtained by the Post-Gazette show these common pet peeves are rarely the cause of serious accidents between bicycles and cars. Even though half the recorded accidents were ruled the bicyclists' fault, aggression and inattentiveness by motorists account for some of the largest categories of accidents -- an important point for advocates, who argue there's already a disparity on the road between a 30-pound bicycle and a 2-ton SUV.

"Two fatal crashes in one week -- that's a call to arms," said Scott Bricker, executive director of advocacy group Bike Pittsburgh. "With so many crashes, if every politician in and around Pittsburgh isn't trying to figure out how can we address this, then something's wrong."

PG graphic: Bicycle accidents in Pittsburgh
(Click image for larger version)

Between January 2006 and July, Pittsburgh saw 361 reported bike-vs.-car accidents, according to Pennsylvania Department of Transportation data. In just over half of the incidents, police blamed the bicyclist, usually for a generic "other improper driving actions" offense, which doesn't include more specific offenses such as running red lights.

Only 1 out of 10 accidents resulted from a bicyclist running a red light or a stop sign. Four percent occurred after a bike rode on the wrong side of the street or up a one-way road.

Indeed, the biggest single category of accidents can be squarely laid on motorists: making careless turns, which account for 60 crashes, or 16.6 percent. In an accident, cars are four times more likely to sideswipe a bicycle while turning than the other way around, statistics show -- bringing new meaning to the infamous "Pittsburgh Left."

"If you ask a cyclist what their main concern is, they don't say other cyclists or pedestrians. They say motorists," said Stephen Patchan, Pittsburgh's bicycle/pedestrian coordinator. "The drivers generally tend to see if other cars are coming and forget to look for cyclists or pedestrians."

This summer has seen some stark examples. A vehicle slammed into Homewood resident James Price on Penn Avenue in Point Breeze, throwing the man, 46, from his bike. Paramedics couldn't save him. A week later, another man was killed nearby in an accident still under investigation.

In response, the city put up signs directing bicyclists away from Penn Avenue in Point Breeze, pointing them toward side streets. The signs will be made permanent as part of a citywide way-finding project, Mr. Patchan said.

But while the city put the spotlight on Point Breeze, far more accidents occur elsewhere, particularly in Oakland, Shadyside and Bloomfield. PennDOT reported seven accidents on the 1-mile stretch of Centre Avenue between Craig Street and Negley Avenue, which Mr. Patchan says is a popular route for cyclists commuting to Oakland.

And cyclists are already wary of Liberty Avenue above the Strip, where a single intersection has seen as many as five crashes. Mr. Bricker recalled that one of his interns was nearly killed in a crash at the intersection of Liberty and Herron avenues, a junction often overlooked by a billboard for an accident lawyer.

Planners and advocates point to the city's new bike lanes and share-the-road markings, noting Pittsburgh barely had a bike culture to speak of prior to the past decade. Mr. Patchan says his department is planning to roll out new bike lanes, though he wouldn't yet say where or when. There's even talk of a separated bike path, set apart from the road by curbs or other physical barriers.

But few in the city seem to have a firm grasp of where exactly accidents happen -- Mr. Bricker had never seen the PennDOT data before. Even national advocates are at a loss: Elizabeth Kiker, executive vice president of the League of American Bicyclists, says with consternation that she can't find any discernible patterns among the 304 deaths she's catalogued this year.

In response, his organization started to collect its own data, publishing a "crash report" map on its website that catalogs self-reported accidents. Here, it's the bicyclists' turn to vent pet peeves.

"The woman had the nerve to ask why I was so close to her door," wrote one bicyclist who said he'd been struck by a woman opening her car door into a bike lane. "What made me angry was not so much that the accident happened but more so her attitude."

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Andrew McGill: amcgill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1497. First Published August 16, 2012 4:00 AM


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