Bicycling Safety

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If you live in, work in, or visit the Chicago area with any regularity, you’ve notice the explosion of protected bike lanes, as well as "traditional" bike lanes. There are more and more cyclists on the road than ever. In fact, within the last year, Bicycling Magazine called Chicago the best city in the country for cyclists. Granted, that was based upon access to bike paths, protected bike lane mileage, and such, but take a trip down Milwaukee Avenue any weekday at rush hour and notice the "hipster highway" in full force. Since bikes are here to stay, you as a motorist must educate yourself on your bike awareness. Similarly, bicyclists have to become more aware of the motorized vehicles with whom they share the roadway.

The Law

In fact, a new law signed by Governor Rauner in August of 2016 just clarified the rights bicycle riders have to use the roadway. Known as "Dennis’s Law," it came to being due to a fatal 2015 bike crash involving Dennis Jurs. Jurs was killed while riding his bike when a car failed to stop and yield the right of way to Jurs, who did not have a stop sign. Right after the bill was signed, two more fatal bicycle-motor vehicle crashes occurred. This law clarifies that bicycles are vehicles and entitled to the same right of way as motor vehicles in Illinois.

What Are Protected Bike Lanes?

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Protected bike lanes have existed in other countries in Europe (particularly The Netherlands and Denmark) for years, but are only finding popularity in this country recently. On a recent trip to The Netherlands, I observed the heart of the bike culture that pervades that country and its occupants. Cars and pedestrians are aware of and alert for bicyclists. They have to be. There are more bikes than people according to most statistics.

A protected bike lane does just that—protects the bicyclists—while maintaining a vehicle-friendly roadway. Usually, these are set up with vehicular traffic toward the middle, parking to the right, and bicycles next to the curb.

A great example of protected bike lanes is on Dearborn Street in Downtown Chicago. Evanston recently built them on Dodge Avenue.

Rights and Duties of Cyclists and Vehicles

Theoretically, this provides a buffer zone of parked cars to protect the cyclists from the moving vehicles. In reality, bicyclists must be aware of possible opening doors (hence the term "dooring") on the passenger side, as well as make sure to not brush up against the curb and lose control. Cars have to become educated to expect bicyclists to be on the road. This requires extra vigilance to look at both side view mirrors at all times, be careful when attempting a right turn across a bicycle lane, and alertly notice the speed of bicycles in their midst.

Most people are unaware that it is illegal to ride on the sidewalk unless you are 12 years or younger. It is also illegal to ride against traffic. Many people were taught to do both.These are no longer the proper way of riding a bike.

Non-Protected or "Traditional" Bike Lanes

These are ubiquitous in Chicago and other places. All they really do to demarcate the bike lane is to have a white line and a symbol of a bike. No protection at all. Bike lanes are right next to the curb. Sometimes they are immediately to the right of the vehicle lanes, while other times parking is interspersed. Either way, the lines are not easy to see. Unless you are familiar with that road, it may be difficult to determine whether a bike lane is present. Assuming cars are alert and aware of bikes and bikes are alert and aware of cars, they work fine. However, if either bikes or cars do not abide by the rules and common sense and courtesy, the problems are multiple.

One issue that occurs frequently is the cars who use the bike lanes as through lanes. They can be ticketed, assuming a police officer witnesses this conduct. Vehicle operators also must be aware that they are required to provide a 4-foot berth to bicyclists. Bikes can see cars, but unless cars are aware of or actively looking for bikes, they can often "miss" them. This can lead to bikes being "run off the road" or cut off either inadvertently or intentionally.

Many drivers "resent" bikes taking up their space, despite their legal right to "share the road." Many also are frustrated when cyclists disregard the rules of the road, cutting across traffic, flying through stop signs, and the like. Bicyclists often are angered by cars who treat them as if they are invisible. Both bicyclists and vehicle drivers have to be aware, alert, and respectful for this to work safely. Every vehicle, motorized or not, must observe the same rules of the road.

Amsterdam protected bike lanes

My Trip

The inspiration for this piece was my trip to Amsterdam and The Netherlands, where protected bike lanes are everywhere, bicyclists are ubiquitous, and there appears to be mutual respect, awareness, and peaceful coexistence of cyclists and vehicle operators. Until our American population is more aware of others upon the road, we will continue to have cyclists injured or killed by turning vehicles, cyclists “doored” by unaware car passengers, and drivers angered by cyclists flouting safety rules. It’s a system that only works if we all buy into it. We have mastered stop signs, parallel parking, and bus stops, maybe in time we can get this bike thing right too!

Take Aways

Cars should be aware of bicyclists, who are more and more a regular presence on our roads. Bicyclists must observe the rules of the road, and ride aware of vehicles. Everyone should ride or drive alertly and defensively.

A great way to accustom yourself to the basic rights and responsibilities is to check out the City of Chicago website, which features great information on bike lanes, bike conduct, and safety.

Not to be too profound or misty-eyed, but a civil society is built on obedience to rules. If we all obey them, we all benefit. Same goes for bikes, cars, bike lanes, and safety.

If you or a loved one is unfortunate enough to be involved in a bike crash, please call a lawyer immediately for guidance.

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