Bicyclists, Motorists, and Safety

The Freakonimics NYT blog has a short item on bicycling accidents and who causes them - the cyclists or motorists:

When it comes to sharing the road with cars, many people seem to assume that such accidents are usually the cyclist's fault — a result of reckless or aggressive riding. But an analysis of police reports on 2,752 bike-car accidents in Toronto found that clumsy or inattentive driving by motorists was the cause of 90 percent of these crashes. Among the leading causes: running a stop sign or traffic light, turning into a cyclist's path, or opening a door on a biker.

This is certainly my experience as a non-serious, get around the neighborhood bike rider here in Washington DC. I ride the roughly mile in each direction between my house, school, gym, and grocery. On advice of DC police, the sidewalk is the official bike lane on Mass Ave and Nebraska Avenue. Even using the sidewalks where legal, going slowly, and all that, I am convinced that riding a bike in DC is the single most dangerous activity in my life. Much more dangerous than driving a car, for example.

My impression is that DC, MD, and VA drivers are like automatons programmed to respond only to other automobiles. Pedestrians register only faintly, and only if there is a baby carriage. Pedestrian crosswalks register not at all. Bicycles are not things recognized by the programming. Yes, it is true that cyclists go through stop signs rather than stop and muscle up again, but the biggest problems are simply that cars do not "see" us. I can see it because I almost always try to make eye contact to be sure the automobile driver sees me - and I can almost see the neurons flare up when they realize Something Is Out There. First Contact, as it were.

Police in DC are not, in my experience, any better. My routes take me past a local precinct house. It is well understood in the neighborhood that you have to be careful driving, walking, or biking in the blocks around the station house when the shift changes, and officers want to get into the station and off shift as fast as possible.

When I ride my bike in Palo Alto, California, on the other hand, all is Bliss. And Happiness. Everyone looks for you. Everyone looks at you. You know that they know you exist on the road. I think they are imagining, 'that could be me, or my kid'. But that requires space for real lanes for bikes, as well as a concerted public education program and, I would guess, a sufficiently large group of local people who both drive and ride bikes, in order to shift and tip the standard of public behavior.

When I ride around DC, I wonder if it isn't a mistake to create bike lanes that aren't really bike lanes, aren't treated by drivers or law enforcement as bike lanes, and are more like a trap for the unwary cyclist who might foolishly believe they mean something. If you really don't have room for bike lanes or the intention of creating a public culture of actual biking - and I should add, upper NW DC is remarkably hilly, at least for Middle Age Guy - then might it not be a mistake, for reasons of doing the Good Civic Thing, to go through the motions of creating, or at least announcing, them?