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Chicago Is Bike-Friendly, But Is It Bike Safe? Crashes Put Safety In The Spotlight

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Spend a day driving the streets of Chicago and it’s easy to see that cyclists share nearly every route of the city’s roadways alongside cars, trucks and pedestrians. The passion for, and emphasis on, cycling in Chicago is obvious — but just how safe actually is it?

Cavanagh Law Group client Terri Cenar knows of the potential dangers all-too-well: Once a triathlete and daily cyclist, in November 2011 Cenar became trapped under a semitrailer after it failed to stop at a right turn and struck her, causing devastating damage to her body.

Her case and the critical evidence discovered by Cavanagh Law Group attorney Tim Cavanagh ultimately resulted in one of the highest truck crash lawsuit settlements in Illinois history — a landmark $9.75 million.

To preserve critical evidence, Cavanagh immediately filed an order of protection against the city of Chicago, which allowed him to gain access to both 911 calls and any potential surveillance video that may have captured the collision. Without the order, the evidence may have been erased by the city after 30 days. Cavanagh’s investigation turned up several witnesses who made 911 calls that were not originally listed in the police report, as well as camera footage which showed Hudson making a right turn in front of Cenar without yielding to her right-of-way.

“The truck driver took the position that he stopped at a light before he made the right turn, but the camera told the truth,” Cavanagh said. “It was critical evidence we were able to capture because we got involved quickly and got a judge to order the city to produce it.”

Six months before the case was set to go to trial, Cavanagh settled for the amount of $9.75 million during a pre-trial hearing before Cook County Circuit Court Judge Hon. James P. Flannery Jr.

And, Cenar isn’t the only one.

In June, Elizabeth Brackett, a Chicago journalist and long-time cyclist and athlete, died after being fatally injured while riding her bike along the Lakefront Trail. In 2017, at least seven others were killed in bike crashes in Chicago, up from six deaths in 2016.

A bike crash report studying bike use in Chicago between 2010-2015 found that the city was in the midst of a “bicycling renaissance” with a 150 percent increase in the number of people relying on bikes for their work commute.

Last year, the City of Chicago implemented its “Vision Zero” plan, which seeks to eliminate all bike-related deaths by 2026, but statistics show cycling can still pose a serious threat to bike riders.

According to a report from the Governors Highway Safety Association and State Farm, in 2015 the average age of cyclists who died in crashes was 45. That same year, the increase in the rate of bike deaths outpaced the overall rise in traffic deaths — increasing by about 55 deaths per year on average.

In 2015, it was estimated at least 45,000 cyclists were injured in crashes, and 818 died.

The vast majority of the fatal crashes — about 72 percent — occurred on the road, not intersections, and nearly 11 percent of deadly crashes involved distracted driving. Of cyclists who died, more than 50 percent were not wearing a helmet at the time of the crash. The report also found fatal crashes occurred at about the same rate when comparing daytime and nighttime crashes, though far fewer people ride bikes after dark.

However, by staying vigilant and following rules of the road, many of these types of tragic accidents can be avoided.

“We all have to be careful out there, but we certainly would hope it would be an indication that perhaps (there needs to be) some more education and enforcement to people who are operating these large vehicles, which oftentimes have blind spots, especially these larger tractor-trailers,” Jim Merrell, advocacy director for the Active Transportation Alliance, told WTTW in 2016.

This interactive map of Chicago’s most “mellow” bike routes highlights some of the most low-stress and bike-friendly streets in the city.

Drivers, use these tips to avoid an accident with a cyclist:

  • Don’t follow too closely: If a bike is riding alongside you, make sure to provide them ample space. Just like a motorcycle, don’t follow to closely and make sure to pay extra attention to the distance between you and the cyclist.

  • Check your blind spot: Known as the “right hook,” many right turns that cut off cyclists wind up in crashes — as it did for Terri Cenar. When turning right, always make sure to check your blind spot for cyclists, and make sure you’re not cutting anyone off (even unintentionally).

  • Watch your driver-side door: If you’re parked along the street (especially one with a bike lane), take precaution before opening the driver’s side door. Give a quick look out your side mirror to ensure no one is riding up before exiting the vehicle.

  • Put the phone down: Cyclists are quick and nimble, and at times can seem to appear in an instant. Make sure you’re not driving distracted and are totally focused on the road by putting down your phone and keeping passengers under control.

  • Check your road rage: Sharing the road with different types of vehicles, as well as cyclists and pedestrians, can be scary and frustrating — sometimes with near-accidents that are far too close for comfort. It’s natural to feel adrenaline in these situations, but keep your emotions in check — don’t let anger escalate to road rage. Drivers in motor vehicles have the upper hand when it comes to power and safety; give cyclists the benefit of the doubt, or call police if necessary.

Cyclists should also abide by these bike safety rules, as recommended by Divvy:

  • Do a pre-check: Is the bike fit to ride safely? Before heading out, make sure the brakes work and tires are amply filled. Adjust your seat to a comfortable position prior to heading out.

  • Plan a practical route: Where are you going? Take into account all factors, like time of day and potential vehicle traffic, weather conditions, and your own level of energy and comfort, to plan a sensible route. Know where you’re going beforehand and try to plan a route that contains bike paths and minimal drivers.

  • Wear safety gear: Always wear a helmet — your head will thank you in the event a crash occurs. Make sure to properly wear it, too: level across your head, chin strap clicked, and with a snug fit.

  • Obey traffic signals: In Illinois, where motor vehicles are required to obey traffic signals, so must cyclists. Follow regular traffic stops and signs.

  • Ride with traffic (unless in a contra-flow lane): Ride in the direction traffic is driving. On some lower-stress streets, bike lanes flow in the opposite direction of traffic. If there is no bike lane, ride far to the right as possible while still leaving space for parked cars.

  • Stay off the sidewalk: Only small children on bikes are allowed to ride on the sidewalk. Adults should always use the roadway.

  • Stop for people crossing the street: Just as a car would, if you approach an intersection and pedestrians are in the walkway, stop for them.

  • Use hand signals: Communicate to drivers what your next move is by using hand signals. Turning right requires holding your right arm straight out (or using your left arm and forming an upward 90-degree angle at the elbow), while turning left requires you to hold your left arm straight out. Indicate stopping by pointing your left finger to the ground.

  • Don’t ride with distractions: It’s never safe to drive if you’re distracted — that means holding off on using cell phones, headphones and other devices. If traveling with pets and parcels, make sure they’re secured and don’t require your constant attention so you can focus on riding.

Learn more about riding bikes in Chicago from Divvy and the Chicago Department of Transportation here.

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