Blaming the victims in OC — bad behavior isn’t behind the high rate of bike deaths

You might recall that earlier this week, I linked to a column in the Orange County Register.

A writer for the Orange County Register joins with the OC Wheelmen to challenge other bike clubs to enforce safety rules for their members.

I have to admit, the story bothered me.

In it David Whiting joined with a couple of local OC cycling organizations to call for strict observance of all traffic laws, with riders who don’t risking banishment from the club. And suggested a prohibition against riding side-by-side, even though that’s legal in California — and explicitly allowed under chapter 11-1206 of the Universal Vehicle Code.

Obeying red lights is probably not the deal breaker. But stop signs? As a cyclist, I know many of us figure they don’t apply to us. Wrong.

And single-file pelotons? You might be muttering, “Not going to happen.”

As one man said Wednesday night, cyclists are more visible and safer when riding in a pack. And I might agree.

But I’m also looking at it from a driver’s perspective. Not only do packs block streets, they scare the bejeebers out of drivers.

Simply put, cyclists need to extend courtesy to drivers whenever possible. Swarming a road is not the way.

The reason for that club-level crackdown is to keep cyclists alive, noting that 80 cyclists have died in Orange County over the last 5 years — seven this year alone.

It’s an admirable goal.

Personally, I support anything that will make our chosen form of transportation/recreation safer while supporting our right to the road. And I have no problem with enforcing traffic laws, as long as authorities target dangerous behavior regardless of who commits the violation, and don’t single out cyclists for selective enforcement.

I also recognize that this could go a long way towards improving the image problem cyclists have with the driving public, many of whom see us as reckless scofflaws who needlessly flaunt traffic regulations.

Unlike all those drivers who never speed, text while driving or fail to come to a full stop at red lights and stop signs, of course. And each of whom are no doubt fully versed on the rights of cyclists, and gladly give us the road space to which we’re legally entitled.

I had other things to deal with, though — not the least of which is a bad back that’s kept me off my bike and wacked out on muscle relaxants most of the week.

Not to worry, though. It only hurts when I move.

Or breathe.

But the story continued to lurk in the back of my drug addled mind, until Richard Masoner, author of the excellent Cyclelicious, emailed me yesterday to ask the same question that had been eating at me.

Just how many of those recent deaths resulted from club rides or cyclists blowing through stop signals or riding two abreast?

So I stopped what I was doing, cleared my head, and dug through my files for every OC bike death I could find dating back to December of last year. The results didn’t surprise me, though they might surprise Mr. Whiting.

  • Dan Crain died in August, hit by a car merging at high speed at what appears to be a poorly designed intersection.
  • Michael William Nine died in July while on a club ride; but rather than “swarming the road,” he was leading the group downhill when a gardener’s truck pulled out in front of him on the wrong side of the street.
  • Alan Earl Miller died in May when a driver drifted off the road and struck him while he was riding on the shoulder of the roadway.
  • Annette Ferrin-Rodgers died in April when she was hit by a bus while riding in a crosswalk with no lights on her bike.
  • Jeffery Blum died in March after lingering in a coma since 2007, following a collision in which the driver who hit him — the only witness — blamed Blum for swerving in front of him.
  • Donald Murphy was killed in December when a woman high on prescription meds ran him down as he was riding single file with other riders on the shoulder of the road.
  • Nine-year old Nicolas Vela was killed in December when he was crossing in the crosswalk in front of a monster truck whose driver was too high up to see the kid on a bike directly in front of him.

That’s seven deaths in nine months — none of which involved cyclists running red lights or stop signs, or riding two or more abreast. And only two involving multiple riders or club rides.

I also found three other bike collisions I’d mentioned since last December.

  • An unnamed 16-year old rider was critically injured in March while riding across a Santa Ana street.
  • Patrick Shannon was killed in April, 2009 when he was struck from behind by a hit-and-run driver while riding home from work.
  • Fourteen-year old Danny Oates was killed in August, 2007 by a driver high on drugs who was also texting at the time of the crash.

If you see any collision on that list that could have been prevented by observing stop signals or riding single file, you’re doing better than me. And only three — Blum, Ferrin-Rodgers and the unnamed 16-year old — could arguably be blamed on the cyclist.

And that my problem with Whiting’s plan.

While I have no doubt his heart is in the right place, it sounds like another case of saying we have to clean up our act so drivers won’t kill us, rather than placing the blame squarely where it belongs — on dangerous drivers, bad infrastructure and lax enforcement.

And dangerously customized trucks that prevent drivers from seeing bike riding kids right in front of their bumpers.

As Masoner wrote,

I’m sure the monster truck driver was terrified of the little nine year old he crushed on the road.

I’m a big believer in being responsible for my own safety. There are certainly actions we can take to reduce the risk of crashing and dying. We as cyclists should be courteous, and we should share the road by riding legally, but pelotons of cyclists hogging the road and blowing stop signs is not a bike safety issue in Orange County or anywhere else. Will single file riding do anything to prevent cyclist fatalities in Orange County? Should a bike club really suspend membership for rolling a stop sign, which is something that 97% of motorists are also guilty of? Can we also call on the AAA to suspend benefits for their members who are observed violating the rules of the road and not exercising common courtesy on the road?

Whiting promises a Phase II that will focus on driver safety. I’ll look forward to seeing it.

In the meantime, though, let’s agree that cyclists should ride safely and observe the law.

But stop blaming the victims.

And stop pretending that it’s the behavior of bicyclists that puts us at risk.


After 17 stages of the Vuelta, Nibali found himself back in the red leader’s jersey; the question is, can he keep it? Cavendish claims his third victory in stage 18; the race should be decided on Saturday’s final climb.


NIMBY residents file a lawsuit to stop the Expo Bikeway. Writing for the Bus Bench, Browne Molyneux says she hasn’t seen the Give Me 3 campaign south of the 10 Freeway, and doesn’t want LADOT’s and the Mayor’s table scraps. Santa Monica Spoke plans a Park(ing) Day park at Swingers on Broadway, complete with bike valet; LADOT Bike Blog looks at Park(ing) Day and Saturday’s Bicycle Beauty Pageant. Speaking of LADOT BB, Bikeside responds to the USC bike ban by taking the poorly paid student intern who reported it to task, rather than the university that did it. Join the LACBC and Bicidigna for a Vuelta de la Bici Digna, a free ride with the Bicidignarias from MacArthur Park to Pan Pacific Park this Saturday from noon to three. Now that texting while driving has been banned, there’s twice as much risk that the driver that hits you will be doing it. Occidental College students should benefit from the improved access provided by the West Valley Greenway Project. Car-less Valley Girl may have to get a new name, but promises not to give up her bike. Will reminisces about living in a city where the destination is always more important than the journey.

The San Francisco Gate takes a look at the Idaho Stop Law, and asks why shouldn’t drivers be able to roll stop signs as well — not that they don’t already; Dave Moulton says it’s one thing to roll through slowly, but blowing through makes us all look bad. A Santa Rosa area cyclist is hospitalized after being sideswiped by a pickup; the driver plays the universal SMIDSY get-out-of-jail-free card.

Bikes Belong and Interbike combine to bring 3.2 miles of bike lanes and a student bike program to the trade show’s soon-to-be-ex-home in Las Vegas. A primer on protecting yourself from the sun while you ride; take it from me, it matters. The fashion world discovers cycle chic at Monday’s Betsey Johnson runway show. A Chicago lawyer suggests buying a non-owners car insurance policy even if you don’t drive. The joys of riding to work — and a little exercise, too. Are you ready for some… High School Mountain Bike Racing? The mean streets of Detroit turn surprisingly bike friendly; losing half a city’s population makes for a lot of empty streets. The perfect lock for anyone who’s looking for a prettier way to secure a bike; personally, I’d use a Brinks truck if I could fit it in my seat pack. A writer questions how it’s possible to go over the handlebars; in my experience, it’s pretty easy if you’re not careful.

A British writer strives to be a MAMIL — in this case, a Middle Aged Mum in Lycra. A driver repeatedly cuts off a cyclist, then throws a drink cup at him — and gets convicted, thanks to the rider’s helmet-cam footage. More debate on Australia’s mandatory helmet law. Copenhagen cyclists get the right to turn right on a red.

Finally, an Indiana cyclist discovers the hard way that there’s only one thing more dangerous than texting while driving. And don’t try this at home — a fourteen year old cyclist gets off his bike, climbs on the hood of the car behind him and smashes the windshield, causing $500 damage.


  1. reb1 says:

    So they believe that we have no right to the road. They tell us that riding in the ditch out of site out of mind is safe. They help us by promoting painted line death traps and call them bicycle lanes. When we get ran over following there helpful directions they fail to report these incidents. When they see us not riding in the ditch they cry foul. When a slobbering drunk or an enraged homicidal maniac kills one of us it must be are fault because everybody knows that bicycling is dangerous.
    David Whiting does not appear as innocent as what you make him out to be. I would be polite but firm with this type. I would let this individual know where things stood. The club president and officers should sit down with him and explain the law to him and how he is to act. If he disagrees throw him out on his nose and make it clear he is not welcome to endanger riders with his selective bias beliefs.
    The typical bicyclists deaths are of the type we saw over the weekend. Right away violations. At night no lights. Drunk drivers on there way to get even more drunk. Motorists are at least equally responsible for the deaths so the politically correct news media runs damage control stories about evil bicyclists attempting to keep poor underprivileged defenseless motorists from driving down the road in peace.

    Alright why did the teen smack up the windshield. I have to admit there have been times when this seemed like a viable option. But those pesky motorists run away when they see the expression on my face.

  2. peteathome says:

    Thanks for the summary of fatalities, that was a very interesting.

    Of course, if you follow the “blame the bicyclist” memes – first they say it’s the cyclist’s fault for acting like scofflaws, then if you point out that the bicyclist was being observant of the law and courteous, various pundits will say bicyclists don’t belong on the road, that “it’s idiotic to mix a few pounds of metal with multi-ton vehicles”. So there almost isn’t a point in arguing.

    Of course, that later point implies that it is kind of OK to drive while texting, sleepy, speeding, changing radio channels without looking at the road, with the sun in their eyes, etc. , because most of the car/car collisions resulting from these behaviors seldom cause fatalities. In our culture it’s OK to cause minor to moderate injury and thousands of dollars of property damage for the convenience of talking on your cell phone while driving,etc. The roads are apparently seen as a no-mans land for other users so that drivers can drive without paying attention.

    So it a kid runs out into the road after a ball and gets hit by an inattentive driver, well that’s the fault of the parents for letting the child into the no-mans land of cars.

    Anyway, I know you said this, but many bicycle/car accidents can be avoided by preventative actions on the bicyclist’s part, even when the driver is the problem.

    For instance, I would say that a bicyclist should not be going so fast that they can’t stop if a vehicle pulls out. I see this behavior a lot in group rides going downhill. If there are any parked cars or intersections, I wouldn’t go 35+ mph. It is just too dangerous.

    Bicyclists should almost never ride within the door zone of parked cars even though it is against the law in most places for a driver to open a door unsafely. Although this hasn’t caused any fatalities in your roundup, it does in areas with more parallel parking.

    And crossing dangerous intersections – well, you need to make sure there is a big enough gap to make it across. More care might have been needed ( on the driver’s and bicyclist’s part). As well as design roads to have better intersections.

    And, of course, we need to make sure bicyclists have a working headlight and a properly mounted and oriented rear reflector when traveling in the dark.

  3. Eric B says:

    Can you do a similar tally for Malibu of the incidents you know about? This was extremely insightful.

  4. Phil M says:

    With the size of group rides I go on, single file would extend the length of the peloton from 30 seconds to about 2 minutes. So every intersection we’d be choking the drivers progress for 3-4 times the time that we do now. There’s no need to piss them off more than we do now. And trying to get a large ride through a short light singe-file? Often not possible. So those that made it wait for those that didn’t, if the ride is to stay together. I think the policy will deteriorate very quickly as not sustainable.

  5. reb1 says:

    Very large groups will annoy motorists because everything they do is quite visible. We have a right to the road as much as the motorists do. We can plan around congested areas and still have safety in numbers without breaking the law. You know your routs. So in the areas where it is likely that a rider or two or three etc will likely run a stop or light to stay with the group, plan around it. Appoint people ride buddies and at a certain point on the route have them stick together in smaller groups. The lead group can slow down until the others catch up. This is only a suggestion. It would we better to be considerate than to have some city over react and make a permit required for large groups. This has been done in some areas of the country.
    How fast is to fast. The basic speed law and inexperience all play into this. The condition of a riders bicycle also adds to this. We ride in groups but how often do we pay attention to inexperienced riders. Having worked in bicycle shops when I was younger I notice little things like brake quick releases being open and low pressure in tires. These are problems that can get somebody hurt. If a group leader does not notice these problems, than the other people in a group should take notice and help inexperienced riders maintain there rides.
    Make sure there is a big enough gap for you to cross the intersection. There is more to it. When you decide there is enough room you need to scan all directions where cars might show up several times as you are crossing through the intersection so you can adjust speed or stop or maneuver if necessary. The gap will change quite quickly while you are going through the intersection due to motorists higher or excessive speeds.
    As was suggested many problems can be avoided if the riders know how to avoid them. Ride leaders and members or friends should teach members and other riders how to watch for and avoid motorists starting from stops, making left hooks and right hooks.

  6. Jim Lyle says:

    Bob Mionske’s book, Bicycling and the Law, has a section on bicycling accidents. Nearly half of all bicycle incidents occur at intersections, but less than 2% fall into a category that includes cyclists running stop signs and red lights.

  7. Allan says:

    The page here gives a pretty good idea of the lives lost in OC, but I’m not claiming it’s complete.

    What really ticks me off about this article is that Whiting used both Christy Kirkwood’s and Don Murphy’s tragedy’s in his photo section and part of his argument with “dangerous” bicyclists. But the only thing the two bicyclists did wrong was getting on their bikes that day! Don was riding the shoulder on a morning ride with two other riders, and Christy was riding with one other rider on an evening ride. Don was in the back and got plowed into by a drugged out bitch on a road that could have easily supported three lanes, but had two and a WIDE shoulder. The only reason I think the driver got caught was because the bike was stuck under the SUV. Christy was riding on a shoulder that was designated a bike lane. The driver drifted into the bike lane.

    This was his two examples of bicyclists acting like outlaws. The newspaper has a guide lines regarding personal attacks and jokes about tragedies. Seems to me that this should fall under that guideline. You just never think it would be applied to a reporter of their site.

  8. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Joe Anthony, Tito Fuentes, Now Bikes, Bike Commute News, Ted Rogers and others. Ted Rogers said: Bad behavior by bicyclists isn't to blame for the high rate of bike deaths behind the Orange Curtain: […]

  9. Al - Seattle says:

    I was on a larger group ride this past weekend and I was not happy to see some cyclists completed blow stop signs and some lights. This behaviour slowed as the group got some mileage going. However, the worst behaviour was from cars. In one instance, a driver made a right turn from the center lane, cutting off cyclists who were in the right turn lane making a right. Apparently he just couldn’t wait for the five of us to stop for the stop sign or to yield to us while we made the turn. To top it off, he had a bike rack on the rear of his car.
    The second driver made a right in front of a group of about 10 of us as we were proceeding on our green light straight through the intersection. If I had been closer to the front I would have signalled to her to stop but no one at the front of the group intervened. I could see her turn signal on from behind so knew what she was going to do and was able to yell once the light turned green. Yeah, those cyclists using the lane and proceeding legally take a whole 10 seconds to clear the intersection. Good thing we weren’t an 18-wheeler rig – lord knows the driver just might have passed out from the pain of waiting her turn.

  10. Allan says:

    Mr. Whiting’s Phase II, drivers’ safety never gets addressed. Cause Phase I, cyclists’ bad behavior never changes. At least that’s the impression I get from him. And he’s got all the legitimacy since he’s a bicyclist and has met with local bike clubs.

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