City's data tapped to reduce bike, pedestrian injuries
Police step up enforcement, as city looks at street projects to improve safety
City officials are launching a data-driven effort to reduce deaths and injuries on Mountain View's streets, examining where and why pedestrians and bicyclists are being hit by cars.
Police Capt. Tony Lopez announced on Tuesday the launch of "Operation T.R.A.F.F.I.C." to target police enforcement and public works projects in the areas that are most dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists. The acronym stands for "Together Raising Awareness For Fewer Injuries and Collisions."
The move was spurred by requests for the data from the Voice and concerned residents who are calling on the city to reduce the numbers of collisions. Police found 357 collisions since September of 2007, 244 involving bicyclists and 113 involving pedestrians, resulting in everything from minor injuries to death. There was one such collision every five days, on average. Seven pedestrians died.
Public works director Mike Fuller said compiling such data is a first for the city.
"We're doing that now, but it's been more of a case-by-case review in the past," Fuller said. "Right now we are looking through that data to get a little more detail to see what we can glean from it."
Bike advocate Jarrett Mullen in an email that such data would be "helpful in prioritizing public works' dollars in areas where there are crashes — and specifically crashes involving injuries."
Car drivers at fault
"When cars and pedestrians collide it is overwhelmingly the car driver's fault, not the pedestrian's fault," Lopez said, adding that it was the case in 73 of the 113 pedestrian collisions.
Most of the pedestrians injuries where drivers were at fault were for "failing to yield to a pedestrian at a crosswalk," Lopez said. It accounted for 47 of the 73 collisions. "Even people walking in crosswalks are getting hit," Lopez said. "Drivers are not paying attention to something that's not a car."
The goal is to use the data to figure out "where police should focus efforts from an enforcement standpoint and where public works can focus their efforts," Lopez said. If there are many collisions on a certain crosswalk, "maybe an argument can be made for putting a light there if there's not a light there," Lopez said.
Police have already begun ticketing drivers in front of Graham Middle School, where three students were hit in recent weeks, and on California Street where two pedestrians were killed this year. Lopez said police may even begin a sort of "decoy" program where an officer poses as a pedestrian or bicyclist to catch offending drivers. A new motorcycle officer position has been created to aid in such efforts, Lopez said.
Under the new enforcement effort, more and more drivers may hear from a police officer something like: "You should have let that pedestrian go — they started crossing well before you approached," Lopez said.
Pedestrians are also not entirely free of blame, police say. Of of the 113 collisions involving pedestrians, pedestrians were at fault 22 times. Lopez said most were for crossing the street outside of a crosswalk (13) and another two were crossing against a red light. Fault couldn't be placed on either party in 18 of the pedestrian collisions.
The move comes as the city faces calls for safer streets from neighborhood groups, school officials and bike advocates, and as North Bayshore companies seek alternatives to car traffic on Shoreline Boulevard and Rengstorff Avenue. Bicycle advocates have asked city officials to pledge to dramatically reduce the number of injuries, especially through safer street design.
One finding in the data is controversial with cyclists: Mountain View police find bicyclists at fault more often than drivers when the two collide. Of the 244 bike-related collisions in five years, bicyclists were at fault in 124 cases while drivers were found at fault in 92.
Police say the biggest mistake bicyclists make is riding on the wrong side of the road, which accounts for 41 of the collisions. "Drivers are not expecting a bicyclist coming up the wrong side of the road," Lopez said. Another big mistake is riding too fast in slow-moving traffic, where drivers aren't looking for faster moving cyclists and turn in front of them, Lopez said.
Mountain View cyclist and blogger Janet LaFluer suspects that officers find cyclists at fault too often in the latter case, which includes what is known as the "right hook", where a driver turns right in front of a cyclist. Given the slow speed of bicyclists, she said it was unfair to blame them.
Lopez acknowledged that it can be a tough call to say who is at fault in such accidents, and that it is even a "shared responsibility" in some cases. It is clearly the driver's fault when he drives past a cyclist, fails to see them, and then turns in front of them, Lopez said. But such is not always the case, he said, and cyclists hit in a "right hook" can be found to be going too fast in slow traffic.
Bias against bikes?
Bike advocates also expressed concern that data putting cyclists at fault would be used against efforts to improve streets for bikes.
"It's very difficult for most people, especially non-bicycling people, to understand the complexities involved here," said bike advocate Andrew Boone in an email. "Not a single street in Mountain View has been designed to safely integrate bicycle and vehicle traffic, and bicyclists do not have access to traffic safety education programs (which are required for motorists to get a license). There also exists a very clear bias by police against bicyclists when determining fault, this bias has been demonstrated in large cities such as San Francisco and New York."
Lopez said there would be new efforts to provide bike education classes, or "bike rodeos" especially to younger riders at schools. Police officers on bikes have even begun ticketing some cyclists, but Lopez said efforts were mostly focusing on drivers. Police don't seek to "crack down" on cyclists and, for example, stop every single one that runs a stop sign, Lopez said.
"We are trying to stress that roadways are not the domain strictly of cars, but that everybody shares them," Lopez said.
When drivers are at fault in hitting cyclists, its usually for "failing to yield" to a cyclist crossing into a traffic lane or for an "unsafe turning movement" in front of a cyclist, both of which Lopez blamed on drivers not paying attention. In 12 cases, drivers opened their doors into an oncoming cyclist.
And while bike advocates say speeding increases the likelihood of accidents, police officers found speeding was the cause of only five collisions with cyclists, Lopez said.
More bikes, fewer accidents
Bike advocates say that as popularity of biking in a city increases, collisions decrease as drivers become more aware of them. Boone says the the data proves this because as cycling has doubled in popularity among commuters in Mountain View in recent years, the number of collisions every year remained at roughly the same level between 2008 and 2011 -- between 43 and 46 collisions a year.
"Bicycling in Mountain View is roughly twice as safe as a few years ago due only to the presence of more bicyclists on the streets," Boone said in an email.
The data builds on limited information released by the police in September on bicycle collisions. A spreadsheet now shows more exact locations of each incident (fewer than half occurred at intersections), whether a parked car was involved (16 of the incidents), if it was a hit-and-run (19 times) or if someone was driving under the influence (that happened twice).
"That's definitely something to applaud, that the police department has taken an effort to take a closer look, that's wonderful," said Corinne Winter, director of the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition. "I think it's incredibly important."
In most cities "there just isn't adequate data collection," she said.
Email Daniel DeBolt at firstname.lastname@example.org