Commentary: In light of cyclist deaths, invest in safety

Pets over people?

That's the picture I came away with after attending the Bicycle Safety Committee meeting Monday evening at the Newport Beach Central Library.

There were well over 100 in attendance, some of whom gave very moving testimonies remembering the lives of Dr. Catherine "Kit" Campion Ritz and Sarah Leaf, both killed in recent days while riding their bikes in Newport Beach. One was on Newport Coast Drive and the other was at Bayside Drive and East Coast Highway.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Mayor Nancy Gardner, the committee chairwoman, stated that bike safety progress in the city has been slow because it's not a budget priority. As a result, there's limited city staff and little city funds allocated to implementing bike safety improvements on city streets.

Why my "pets over people" picture?

In 2002, I was almost killed at the Corona del Mar (73) Freeway offramp onto Newport Coast Drive. Three years ago, a cyclist was killed at this same spot. That exit area is well used by cyclists but is in the same condition as when I was hit, even though many have appealed for changes, especially by lowering the exit speed from the 73.

The city's repeated response: Caltrans controls the 73 exit area, so the city's hands are tied.

When I was on the City Council and the city decided to take over the southerly half of Coast Highway — a much more complicated and costly objective — to facilitate city road work in Corona del Mar, city resources and lobbyists were put on the job. It was completed in short order and the city controls it today.

It's simple: The city made it a priority, resources and funds were applied, and the objective was completed.

Consider another example. In the next few months the city will complete its $2-million bridge from the new Civic Center complex, over San Miguel Drive accessing the new dog park near the Newport Center bus terminal. Again, the city made the bridge a priority, city resources and funds were applied, and we'll soon have a new bridge for residents and their pets.

But two new tragic cyclist deaths — added to six cyclist deaths in the past three years — and our city's response from the mayor on Monday is that the city has no, or, at best, very limited money or staff for improved bike safety?

The mayor's "no city resources" lament is not hers alone, but reflects that of the entire City Council.

I invite you to question how this wealthy city has so few resources for bike safety when it's spending upward of $150 million on the new Civic Center, an adjacent park and the Central Library expansion, including this $2 million-bridge to the dog park.

It is my hope that these most recent tragic cyclist deaths, together with the six who recently preceded them, will cause our city leaders to rethink and redirect city resources to the safety of its cycling residents and visitors whose lives are each worth far, far more than any pet I know.

And I love my dog a lot.

JOHN HEFFERNAN is a former Newport Beach mayor.

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