It’s been a little over a year since nine Kalamazoo bicyclists were struck by a pickup truck driver allegedly under the influence of prescription drugs. Five cyclists died and four were injured that day in June 2016.
Though that was only one incident, bike crashes in the state are nothing new. Between 2005 and 2015, Michigan ranked 11th highest for bike deaths per capita in the United States.
Many Crashes Didn't Make National News
Kalamazoo's Valerie Litznerski is a competitive cyclist. She wasn't involved in the bike tragedy. But in 2011, a driver T-boned her bike in St. Joseph while making a turn.
She also had a scare last November - just a few months after the Kalamazoo bike tragedy. Litznerski and three other experienced cyclists were riding at night in Alamo Township. She says all of them had tail lights on:
“We were riding single file and I remember looking back and seeing the headlights of the vehicle and a few minutes later hearing the vehicle strike the last rider in the group. I was in the front, so fortunately I was not hit during the accident. I was very lucky. The three other riders were all at least hit or bumped into.”
And then, the driver sped away. It took five months for police to catch the suspect in the hit-and-run. Litznerski says there have been problems between cars and cyclists long before the tragedy in June.
“It’s really unfortunate that it took an event like that to bring this to people’s minds,” she says.
Less Biking Weather, Yet More Fatalities
(Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration)
Over a ten year period, Michigan ranks up with states like Florida, Louisiana, and the Carolinas. Peter Savolanien is a safety engineer at the Iowa State Institute for Transportation. He’s been working on a study that looks at bicycle crashes in urban counties across the country.
“It’s interesting cause most of those states with the higher rates tend to be the warmer weather states because in those areas you can generally walk and bike year round,” he said.
Savolanien says the biggest indicator for how many crashes you'll have in an area is how many bicyclists are on the road. More bicyclists leads to more crashes. Savolanien says Michigan seems to be one of the few northern states near the top—though Indiana isn’t too far behind, it ranked 14th.
Michigan Issues That Could Lead To Bicyclist Deaths
Even though there may be fewer people biking in the winter months than other states, Savolanien says there could still be a lot of people biking in Michigan.
One factor could be the economy. His team found that there were more crashes in low income areas and places that had high unemployment rates. Places like Detroit, for example.
“Individuals would be less likely to own automobiles in those instances and so there’s more people walking and biking. And as a result of that there’s more crashes and unfortunately more fatalities,” said Savolanien.
Then there’s the law. Michigan is one of only five states that doesn’t have a law clearly stating how vehicles should act when passing bicyclists. According to the League of American Bicyclists—a national bike advocacy group—many states require three feet of space when passing.
Valerie Litznerski says that’s why bicyclists in Kalamazoo, Portage, Oshtemo Township pushed for a 5-foot passing ordinance last year.
What Causes Bike Crashes Nationwide
There are two major things that can cause bike crashes no matter what state you're in—a lack of bike infrastructure and education.
Valerian Kwigizile researches traffic safety at Western Michigan University. He says you see more crashes in areas that don’t have things like bike lanes.
“There are not enough facilities that bicyclists can use. So if there is no facility, obviously a bicyclist is going to use whatever is available,” he explained.
That could mean riding on a busy street or somewhere even more dangerous, like a sidewalk. According to a report Kwigizile prepared for the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning, more than 40 percent of the bicyclists Western studied were riding on a sidewalk right before getting into an accident.
Paul Selden educates cyclists about bike safety through the Kalamazoo Bicycle Club. He says many cyclists think a sidewalk is safer than the road, but there’s actually more opportunities to get hit as cyclists cross each driveway.
“It’s sort of an ironically dangerous false sense of comfort,” said Selden.
Kwigizile says he also thinks there’s a link between road signs that say things like “share the road” and bike fatalities. Of bike accidents in the state, 86 percent occurred in areas with no bicycle signage.
“Drivers are reminded that they should expect bicyclists in this area. It’s very, very important because some drivers tend to forget and think that the roadways are just for themselves,” said Kwigizile.
And then there’s good old-fashioned education. Unfortunately, Kwigizile says that’s only effective when you can reach a lot of people—but one Michigan city seems to have done it.
How Grand Rapids Lowered Its Bike Crashes
Last year Grand Rapids started a $600,000 bike education campaign. It put out messages everywhere - on TV and radio stations, billboards, bus ads, and social media. The result was a more than 80 percent drop in serious crashes between bikes and cars.
“It suggests that our level of safety, level of education could be at a much higher level even if we did just a little bit more by comparison,” said Paul Selden.
While people remember the one-year anniversary of the Kalamazoo bike tragedy, cyclists like Selden and Litznerski are still waiting for safer roads.
For more info on bike safety, follow the Kalamazoo Bicycle Club's link here.
A Caveat On The Rankings
It’s important to note that unlike with cars, Savolanien says there’s no good way for researchers to figure out exactly how many people are biking and for how many miles. Bikes can go many places that cars can't.
To get more accurate data on bicyclists, Savolanien and his team have been using numbers on bike commuters from the American Community Survey. Just for comparison, WMUK used that data to see if it would dramatically change the rankings for bike fatalities—and for some states it did.
Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas, for example, all rose to the top of the fatalities list. States that, by population alone, were ranked near the middle or the bottom. Michigan, however, stayed much the same - it ranked 13th in that data set.
Of course, even the numbers from the American Community Survey should be taken with a grain of salt. After all, there are more bicyclists than commuters alone.