2012-03-22 / Top News

The dangers of bicycling make Florida ... 'Most dangerous'

BY ROGER WILLIAMS

ELAYNE JACKSON REFUSED TO BECOME THE WORST STAtistic, in part by wearing a helmet.

It was the first in a list of several things she did right as a bicyclist in North Naples traffic — but it was the only one that paid off.

The worst statistic is listed under “Fatality.” It occurs often enough in Florida to give the Sunshine State its infamous tag: “Most Dangerous” — the most dangerous state in the union for bicyclists and pedestrians, according to Transportation for America, an organization that collects data from all 50 states.

What happened to the 45-year-old Ms. Jackson, a fit, everyday Neapolitan bicyclist, very nearly put her in the grave.

She found herself halted in traffic and waiting to turn left from Vanderbilt Beach Road onto U.S. 41 northbound, in the middle of the afternoon on Feb. 29.

“I got to the outside of the left hand turn lane, because I needed to go north on 41,” she recalls. “All I remember is being in the left turn lane where I was supposed to be, at the intersection. And when the light turned, I guess I went.


JACKSON JACKSON “I woke up three days later not knowing whether I was in Rhode Island (her home state) or Florida.”

The answer was neither.

Ms. Jackson was in the intensive care unit at Lee Memorial Hospital in Fort Myers, where she’d been airlifted to the trauma center — a world unto its own.

The driver of a Collier County-owned Ford 350 pick-up hauling a trailer — apparently positioned on her right, and also facing east on Vanderbilt Beach Road — accelerated when the light turned green and ran over her, dragging her for many feet.

Fault has not been established; no witnesses have come forward, and as of press time, the Florida Highway Patrol has not yet seen a video of the crash from cameras facing the intersection, according to a spokesman, who did not say why the video was still unavailable after more than two weeks. A 3-foot state driving law requires drivers passing bicyclists to come no closer than a yard to any bicyclist.


Looking toward the east from the southwest corner of the intersection of Vanderbilt Beach Road and U.S. 41. 
OSWALDO PADILLA / FLORIDA WEEKLY Looking toward the east from the southwest corner of the intersection of Vanderbilt Beach Road and U.S. 41. OSWALDO PADILLA / FLORIDA WEEKLY If her memory serves, along with the judgments of other bicyclists who studied the scene, nothing Ms. Jackson did was an error on her part, including getting out in traffic.

“Cyclists operating on roads and who do so in a manner similar to how motorists operate — including controlling a lane when it’s too narrow to share (less than 12 feet) — fare best,” says Dan Moser, a bicycle advocate who writes a column for the Fort Myers edition of Florida Weekly. “Our traffic principle is based on ‘first come, first served,’ and that includes cyclists having that right.”


From the south side of Vanderbilt Beach Road, looking east at the intersection of U.S. 41. 
OSWALDO PADILLA / FLORIDA WEEKLY From the south side of Vanderbilt Beach Road, looking east at the intersection of U.S. 41. OSWALDO PADILLA / FLORIDA WEEKLY Michelle Avola, executive director of the Naples Pathways Coalition, a nonprofit organization that for the past eight years has promoted safer streets for bicyclists and pedestrians, echoes that judgment.

“Cyclists are advised to ride on the right side of the lane in the absence of a bike lane, and she obviously couldn’t safely make a left turn from the bike lane on the far right side of Vanderbilt Beach Road. She was doing nothing wrong, based on what she told me.”

Ms. Jackson, meanwhile, is preparing to spend months recovering from a long laundry list of injuries and hard knocks: nine broken ribs that punctured her lung, a lacerated liver, a broken collar bone and shoulder bone, a broken tibia (the larger bone in the lower leg), two broken vertebrae and a broken knee cap — not to mention skin and tissue ground down to the bone.


Elayne Jackson before the accident. 
COURTESY PHOTO Elayne Jackson before the accident. COURTESY PHOTO She was going back into surgery this week to begin skin grafts and repair damage, according to her mother, Ann Palumbo, who flew in from Rhode Island to be with her daughter the day after the accident.

“The doctor said probably three more weeks in the hospital,” Ms. Palumbo says.

Cost and education

That’s expensive, and not just because of the hospital bill.

For each pedestrian or bicyclist killed in a traffic accident, the economic cost is about $4.1 million, according to figures determined by the National Safety Council. Even for injuries that do not incapacitate the victim, the cost per accident averages about $53,000. Those numbers take into account the cost of the accident itself and the loss of a productive work life in part or full.

Ms. Jackson’s — cost yet to be determined — is one more avoidable run-in between a motor vehicle and a bicycle that suggests two needs, say advocates of safer and “complete” streets.

First is the desperate need to fit and retrofit roadways to accommodate bicycles and pedestrians. Equally important is the need for drivers and cyclists — both — to exhibit a goingforward sympathy and respect for each other.

That’s something they might acquire through education, suggests Ms. Avola, in a note to Collier County Commissioner Georgia Hiller.

“Proper facilities for cyclists and pedestrians (off-road, multi-use pathways, bike lanes and sidewalks in a complete transportation network) are part of the solution, but education is just as vital to knock Florida out of the number one spot for killing cyclists and pedestrians,” she says.

For her part, Ms. Jackson, who has lived and ridden her bicycle in Naples for four years, is both generous in her assessment of the efforts of county officials to establish opportunities for bicyclists and pedestrians, and realistic about the results.

“I do believe they do a good job (planning and building) bike paths,” she says. “But they’re not all connected. It’s kind of choppy. It’s hari-kari (like ritual suicide) until you get to the next smooth stretch.”

Statistics bear out the hari-kari estimate of conditions.

In 2010, the Collier County Sheriff ’s Office investigated 84 crashes between bicycles and motor vehicles, and 54 accidents in which pedestrians were hit, says Michelle Batten, a CCSO spokeswoman.

Then it got worse. In 2011, the CCSO investigated traffic crashes involving 99 bicyclists and 49 pedestrians. The two-year total is 284, and that does not include crashes investigated by the Naples police, the Florida Highway Patrol or Marco Island police.

The official effort

For their part, officials have capitalized on federal, state and local money to create a significant web of bicycle “facilities” — that’s the word they use to describe bike-accessible sidewalks, paths that run along or near roads and so-called greenways (paths that are not next to roads).

“We’ve built 133 sidewalk miles and more than 16 miles of greenways,” says Connie Deane, community liaison in the Growth Management Division of Collier County. “One of the visions is to have more of these facilities and to connect them all, eventually,” she adds.

Two projects underway now are set to be complete late in 2013:

¦ A route along Collier Boulevard from Davis Boulevard to the Golden Gate main canal that merges with existing paths, and

¦ Miles of sidewalk and pathway along Oil Well Road from Immokalee Road to Everglades Boulevard, and from Oil Well Grade Road to Ave Maria Boulevard.

Additionally, planners meet March 30 to begin a yearlong research effort to lay out the future, says Sue Faulkner, a principal planner for the Collier County Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Now is the chance for Jane and John Q. Public to help shape that future, Ms. Faulkner says.

“We’re going to begin working with ad hoc committees — citizens’ agencies throughout the county who might have a perspective to contribute to development of a new plan. That new plan will identify projects they want to pursue and their vision for what the connections will be.”

Perhaps easier said than done.

Lucie Ayer, executive director of the MPO, says that politics and strong opinions play a constant role in changing both the roadways and the culture of thought about the rights of bicyclists, especially in private neighborhoods such as the ones flanking Vanderbilt Drive.

There, residents have fought a bikepath plan for which funds are already available that would connect their neighborhood with Bonita Estates in Lee County, allowing bicyclists, runners, walkers and all other foot or pedal traffic safe access to both communities.

“We encounter this all the time,” Ms. Ayer reports. “There are always competing priorities. It’s pretty common, especially when you try to make improvements through areas populated by private residents.”

Darla Letourneau, director of the nonprofit Bike Walk Lee (www.bikewalklee.org), encouraged Collier County commissioners to push the project forward by arguing both safety and economics in a February letter to Com- missioner Hiller (Commissioner Hiller did not respond to a request for comments by press time).

“Collier County is in an enviable position — you have the funds on hand now from the developer to pay for the needed 12-foot standard multi-use pathway,” Ms. Letourneau wrote. “Not moving forward with the pathway as planned will cost future taxpayers of Collier County more money in inevitable retrofits, and will deny current residents and visitors an adequate and safe multi-use path system.

“One of the key principles of complete streets is to ‘do it right the first time,’” she added. “There is nothing more costly on transportation projects than not providing for anticipated use and having to come back later and pay 10 times more to retrofit the project.”

Needed: mutual respect

But retrofitting the attitudes of everyone in the driving-bicycling community might be the most challenging project of all.

Whether individuals are guiding a ton or two of combustion-powered motor vehicle or a few pounds of pedal powered bicycle, the way they think about each other can probably both prevent injuries and save lives, suggests Ms. Avola at the Naples Pathways Coalition.

“The lack of regard for people who have been injured or killed walking or biking really surprises me,” she says, reacting to the flurry of online comments about Ms. Jackson’s accident that criticized both Ms. Jackson and bicyclists in general.

But it cuts both ways, Ms. Avola adds. Bicyclists sometimes show little sympathy for drivers, and the attitudes together become dangerous.

In an e-mail letter to Commissioner Hiller last week, Ron Tougas, who walks the family dog with his wife each morning, made these observations: “(Bicyclists) around our Pine Ridge area are blatantly ignoring all normal rules of the road. In particular, I might point to the intersection of West and Carica (south end), where there is a school bus stop and where vehicles on Carica have stop signs and those on West don’t…

“Every morning around 7:45, a group of speed bikers, ranging in numbers from eight to 20, come along Carica (heading SE) and turn west on West and never stop. At about that same time, the school bus passes, heading east on West. On several occasions I have wondered if there might be a problem or collision because the bikers hardly slow down, passing through the stop sign as they turn right onto West; one of the lead bikers usually yells “clear,” giving the rest a go-ahead to proceed at speed. Occasionally we’ve also seen close calls with local trash collector trucks.”

Ms. Avola acknowledges that bicyclists and drivers alike make mistakes and can hold grudges. And that has to stop.

Instead, she advises, we need “to educate cyclists, pedestrians and motorists to help us all do the right things more of the time — to reduce accidents and reduce the friction between cyclists and pedestrians.”

Ms. Ayer at the MPO advocates both a personal ethic and education. The ethic is empathy.

“As planners, we want to do the appropriate thing for bikers who can ride fast. Their preference is to be away from the sidewalk,” she says.

Statistics show that sidewalks are the most dangerous place for bicyclists, since many have been killed or injured by traffic emerging suddenly and drivers who don’t spot them.

“But sometimes,” adds Ms. Ayer, “you cannot provide the wider pathways. If nothing else is available, shouldn’t everybody be considerate of other people, and share?”

In the end, that may prove to be the most important question, and the clearest answer. ¦

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