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Making Waves

Cycling along the coast creates some troubling statistics.

SAM GANGWER/ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
A bicycle rider stops to look at the ghost bicycle memorial to Corona del Mar resident Sarah Leaf, who was killed while riding her bicycle on Coast Highway and Bayside Drive in Newport Beach.

It’s undeniable that the sonic cycling boom along the coast is real, the relentless by-product of our fitness culture, the attraction and challenge of our topography, the visual appeal of our coastline, and a shift in reasons why people are mounting up.

Today’s two-wheel mix includes serious, long-distance “road warriors,” less ambitious recreational and exercise-hungry cyclists of all ages, people who shun a car for errands in a small radius from their homes, and commuters to jobs and school. In short, bicycling has become as much a part of our culture as surfing, sailing and skateboards. 

Get Organized  
A sobering, comprehensive –
and, in places, heartbreaking
– picture is presented by
the Orange County Bicycle
Coalition, and bikeNewportBeach
has become a powerful, informed
and constructive organizing force
for the cycling community thanks
to April Morris, Frank Peters and
other passionate advocates.
ocbike.org  ::  bikenewportbeach.org

But our coastal towns mostly grew up around the car, and reengineering our roads for a growing bicycle population – let alone tackling the cultural resistance to more bikes on our roadways – is a challenge.  

The heavily congested Pacific Coast Highway is the irresistible attraction for many cyclists who love the ride from Long Beach to San Clemente, and segments in between. But PCH is by

far the most dangerous road for cyclists in the county. When statistics are compiled and analyzed for 2012, there likely will be well over 500 PCH collisions involving people on bikes (and even more injuries).  

Other coastal roads making the top 10 list include Newport-Balboa and Beach Boulevards, Brookhurst Street and 17th Street in Costa Mesa.  

So riders beware.

This conflict on our streets is very real and troubling, and never more than when a white “ghost bike” is left for days as a flower-strewn memorial to a cyclist who died at the scene doing what he or she loved to do.

There were 15 OC bicycle deaths in 2012 that involved an automobile, according to the county coroner.

Newport Beach had the highest reported accidents on its stretch of PCH, which has prompted a concerted effort by serious and thoughtful community and municipal leaders to make it a safer place for cycling.

More than 1,000 cyclists of all kinds held an emotional rally and memorial ride at Fashion Island last September to celebrate the lives of two accomplished women – one, a young fitness trainer and nutritionist, the other a noted physician – who died the same weekend in separate crashes involving vehicles. The rally raised more than $75,000 for a fund dedicated to road safety improvements, and the city matched it three to one.

Newport Beach’s most dangerous roads and intersections are getting new stripes (most of them along PCH), bike lanes, signs, and “sharrows” (the painted stencils of bicycles in the roadway) – to make everyone aware of the regular presence of bicycles on the road. 

Newport Beach city leadership starts with three important figures who are regular – even accomplished – cyclists: City Manager Dave Kiff, Police Chief Jay Johnson and new City Councilman Anthony Petros.  

And no doubt the search for solutions has a new urgency in light of the $48 million settlement last November by the city of Dana Point with two women who were seriously injured by a drunk driver who strayed into the bike lane where they were jogging on PCH.   

Councilman Petros of Newport Beach calls out the biggest hurdle that must be cleared to achieve true safety on the streets. “We can’t engineer around stupidity or ignorance or bad judgment,” he says, reflecting the considerable experience of a planner, traffic engineer, road warrior, and triathlete.  

We surely could reduce the dangerous rub between cyclists and drivers if everyone absorbed and honored the short California Vehicle Code Section 21202A. It unequivocally and generously allows bicycles to share California’s roads, mostly staying as far to the right as possible. It contains significant exceptions that permit them to ride as well in the right traffic lane.  

But the problem is more complex, and illuminated by accident statistics:
Too many cyclists increase their chance of death or serious injury by riding on the wrong side of the street. Or zooming across streets mid-block, ignoring traffic lights and signs, and zipping into, through and across traffic whenever the spirit moves them.

Too many motorists increase the chances of killing or maiming a cyclist when distracted by texting, using a cell phone or adjusting playlists. Or they open their driver’s side door after parking without looking in the mirror. Or they make sweeping U-turns on a whim. Or they boldly take right turns and merges, concentrating more on an efficient entry into the roadway than a cyclist moving in the same lane.

Throw drugs or alcohol into the mix, and it usually amps up the anger, urgency and impatience that magnify our cultural sense of road entitlement – and it seldom ends pretty.

Our biggest problem is too many morons on both two and four wheels, who share the blame.
The optimists believe that as bicycling flourishes, both drivers and cyclists will embrace the mantra “same road, same rules,” and adopt a much-needed civility.
There’s a great resolution for the new year.

Larry Thomas had a career involving reporting, and corporate and political communications. He decided five years ago that beach-cruising, travel, the theater, and wine deserved a higher priority in his life.


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