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Riding Dangerous: Bike Safety in the Bayou City

Riding Dangerous: Bike Safety in the Bayou City
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Squealing tires, shattering glass, a dull thud, a body laying injured on the pavement. For Andrew Henderson that generic setup for a personal injury attorney commercial became his ongoing reality on Oct. 3 after he rode his bike through the Wichita and Chenvert intersection. He said that, as he peddled, he “watched a patrol car approach the intersection.”

“By the time I realized it wasn’t going to stop, it was too late,” Henderson said. The patrol car slammed into Henderson, breaking bones in his foot, lacerating his face and causing a hematoma in his leg.

The driver of the car was a deputy for the Harris County Precinct 7 Constable’s Office, and according to a police report, she was responding to an emergency call. The constable’s office said the deputy, whose name has not been revealed, was responding to a “priority two call.” According to the constable’s office, deputies responding to a priority two call are required to have emergency lights on but not the siren.

Henderson is adamant that the deputy had not activated the vehicle’s lights or siren at the time of the collision.

“I watched the car all the way through the intersection,” he said. “She never turned the lights or siren on.”

Henderson is one of hundreds of pedestrians and cyclists hit by automobiles in Houston every year. From May 2013 to April 2015 there were 950 reported collisions between automobiles and cyclists in the Houston city limits, according to HPD. Of those collisions, 213 were hit and runs.

In 2014, there were 13 automobile and bicycle collisions per 100,00 residents, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. The department also reported that last year saw 30 automobile and pedestrian collisions during the same time period.

Despite the 2013 adoption of a safe passing ordinance, which requires automobiles to give vulnerable road users – cyclists and pedestrians — three feet of space when passing, the number of automobile and cyclist collisions has increased over the last few years.

“We’ve had 10 fatal accidents this year,” Richard Tomlinson of Ghost Bike Houston said. Ghost Bike erects a white bike at the scene of a fatal collision between an automobile and cyclist. “Right now we are on pace to equal the number of fatal accidents from the last few years.”

In 2010, TxDOT report the number of auto-pedestrian collisions was at 18 per 100,000. Even with the lower number of collisions, Texas was still a dangerous place for non-motorized traffic. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Transportation reported that Texas was the number two state in the country for auto-pedestrian fatalities.

Part of the increase in auto-pedestrian and auto-cyclist collisions could be attributed to an increase in the number of Houston residents walking and riding bikes. According to Metro, the number of people boarding a bus with a bike more than doubled from 10,000 in 2011 to 25,000 in 2014.

As non-motorized forms of transportation increase in popularity, some fundamental questions about how Houston’s infrastructure can contribute to pedestrian and cyclist safety are being asked.

“Safe streets are streets that are designed for people in bikes and in cars,” Mary Blitzer, director of community and governmental relations for Bike Houston, said. “It means designing a street for people to drive at the speed limit and not above it.”

Blitzer cited TC Jester, a designated bike route, as a “race way” where the speed limit is 35 mph, “but most people regularly drive 50 mph.” She added that Houston will need to adopt different approaches when it comes to engineering bicycle safety by adding protected and unprotected bike lanes to some streets and turning others into “bicycle boulevards, where bicycles and cars can comfortably share space because cars are going less than 25 mph.”

Another tactic that can be deployed to curtail the number of auto-pedestrian and auto-cyclist collisions is increased enforcement of state laws regarding speeding, running red lights or stop signs, and drunk or distracted driving, according to Blitzer. The highly vaunted safe passing ordinance, a piece of legislation supported by both Bike Houston and Ghost Bike Houston, has also been one of the least enforced in the city.

From April 2013 to May 2015, Houston police officers wrote only eight tickets for violations of the ordinance, according to figures from HPD and the Houston courts. Tomlinson believes that enforcement will pick up now that Houston residents have had a chance to become familiar with the ordinance.

“I spoke for a long time with HPD bike patrol about the enforcement of the safe passing ordinance and they told me that they’ve increased the number of citations they’re writing,” Tomlinson said. HPD public information officers did not return request for comment regarding the number of safe passing ordinance violations issued since May 2015.

But promises from law enforcement officers are cold comfort for Andrew Henderson. Henderson described some of the officers as part of the problem.

“When you have police officers that are hitting pedestrians it speaks very loudly about how dangerous it is to ride bikes in Houston,” he said. “If the people who are here to serve and protect are hitting bike riders that’s a big problem.”

Henderson will be having a benefit to raise money for medical bills at Double Trouble on Nov. 19.