State report: Newport rates high in bike accidents

As the Newport Beach community mourned two cyclists killed within two days, concerns about cycling safety have resurfaced with fresh intensity. But while city officials and advocates said infrastructure improvements are important, changes must start with an attitude shift away from a cars-only mentality.

“What we almost need is to hire a psychological facilitator, and we could all hold hands in the dark and sing ‘Kumbaya,’” said Frank Peters, a member of the Newport Beach Citizens Bicycle Safety Committee. “Humans are so resistant to change.”

Still, members of the cycling community said, changes may be necessary.

“Obviously, this place gets more and more urbanized every year,” said Art Shapiro, a 13-year member of the Orange County Rebel Riders, a cycling club. “So it would be hard to assert things are getting safer.”

The most recent information from the California Office of Traffic Safety shows that in 2010, Newport Beach ranked among the worst cities in bicycle injuries and deaths when compared with cities its size across the state.

Newport Beach ranked third highest in the number of traffic accidents involving cyclists who were injured or killed when compared with 103 other similarly-sized cities. The city ranked third highest in accidents involving people 15 years old or younger.

As a whole, Orange County didn’t fare much better. It ranked 14th highest, out of 58 total counties, in the number of cyclists killed or injured in crashes. The county ranked ninth among collisions involving people 15 or younger.

Statewide, cyclist fatalities dropped between 2006 and 2010 by nearly 30%, according to Chris Cochran, a spokesman for OTS.

But preliminary information indicates fatalities increased in 2011 and are on the rise in 2012, Cochran said.

Data from Newport Beach police show that most accidents involving cyclists happen in clear daylight conditions, often in summer months.

Hot-spot intersections, as identified by Newport Beach police, where the majority of vehicle-vs.-bicycle collisions occur are Newport Boulevard and Via Lido, Newport Boulevard and 32nd Street, and Riverside Avenue and Avon Street. All are within a mile of each other between Mariner’s Mile and City Hall.


Crashes involving ‘dooring’

Police also found that while citywide cyclists are responsible for collisions with vehicles about 56% of the time, in Corona del Mar motorists were at fault 70% of the time. Of those in CdM, 33% of crashes between 2006 and 2011 resulted from “dooring,” when a motorist who parked parallel to a cyclist opens a car door into the path of the oncoming cyclist and causes a crash.

Since 2006, nine people have died in bicycle crashes, and in at least four of the incidents, the driver of the vehicle involved faced charges and was convicted.

In 2009, the city formed a task force on cycling safety in response to Darryl David Benefiel’s death. Benefiel, 43, suffered massive head trauma after a 22-year-old motorist in a Honda Accord made a left turn and struck him at Ridge Park Road and Tesoro on July 23, 2009. That December, Benefiel’s mother sued the city, saying there was improper signage at the popular cycling destination.

The task force recommended the creation of a permanent Cycling Safety Committee in 2010, after two additional fatalities. In one instance, on Dec. 9, 2009, 49-year-old Donald Murphy died after a driver drifted out of her lane, hitting Murphy before fleeing.

Then on July 15, 2010, 43-year-old Michael Nine collided with a truck after the driver illegally turned left onto Spyglass Hill Road. Nine’s friends guessed he was traveling at 40 mph at the time, and he hit the truck head first.

Nine died later at a hospital.

In both cases, the drivers were prosecuted and convicted.

This year the number of collisions involving cyclists decreased since last year, police said. In 2011, there were 57 collisions involving cyclists, and this year there have been 45.


What can be done to prevent future collisions?

According to Margaux Mennesson, communications director of Portland-based nonprofit Bicycle Transportation Alliance, “The No. 1 thing cities can do to make cities safer [for cyclists] is encourage people to ride bikes.”

Although it’s difficult to track the total number of cyclists on the road at any given time, Peters said factors like health consciousness, concern for the environment and high fuel prices have led to greater awareness of biking as a viable transportation alternative.

“The movement is progressing,” he said, “even if it takes longer in Newport Beach.”

Mennesson said that in Portland, which has been widely praised as one of the country’s most bike-friendly cities, safer, low-speed traffic routes have given bicyclists a safer alternative to busy thoroughfares.

She added that in a sprawling suburban area, where bike commuting may seem like a fantasy, bulking up transit options to fill in longer stretches are “a great place to start.”

Of course, said Newport Beach Mayor Nancy Gardner, that all costs money. On the other hand, “I think you can make a lot of arguments” in favor of revamping bike-centric infrastructure, she said.

“In Portland, only 7% of people ride their bikes to work,” Gardner said. “But you think about it, and what if we took 7% of commuters off the road?”

She said many factors come into play when actually implementing improvements. While the city has jurisdiction over surface streets, freeways and Coast Highway are under state jurisdiction.

The city is working with the California Department of Transportation to improve the intersection of the Corona del Mar (73) Freeway and Newport Coast Drive. The city has also repainted other problematic intersections that are under its sole jurisdiction, Gardner said.

Gardner added that in light of the recent deaths, the implementation of widely discussed “sharrows” — or share arrows that allow bikes to ride in the center of car lanes — could be expedited without extensive public comment. The sharrows would remind cars to share the road with cyclists.

She said the committee has also explored cyclist-training options, like the training required in order to get a driver’s license.

Ultimately, though, Gardner said people make mistakes, and courtesy toward those around you goes a long way.

“If you are walking, you’re conscious of all things pedestrian. When you’re on your bicycle, you’re conscious of all things cycling,” she said. “In cars, you’re the apex predator there.”;

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