Education seen as key to stem vehicle accidents involving cyclists, pedestrians
It’s just after 8 a.m. on a typical weekday and the streets in Denton bustle with the usual morning traffic rush.
University of North Texas students scurry across Hickory Street at various points as cars approach, and bicyclists weave through traffic on the downtown Square and along University Drive. It’s a familiar scene that repeats every few hours throughout the day.
On the surface, the relationship motorists share with bicyclists and pedestrians on the road can often appear like an orchestrated dance on asphalt, but records show minor and major accidents can happen if someone forgets the steps.
Since 2008, more than 280 accidents in Denton involving a motor vehicle and either a bicyclist or a pedestrian occurred primarily on Denton’s busiest roads, according to records.
And since 2009, accidents have continued to increase slightly, records show.
More than half of all of the accidents between motorists and either a pedestrian or cyclist in Denton County occur inside Denton city limits.
And nine bicyclists are hit by a motor vehicle for every 100,000 registered vehicles in the county, according to an analysis of Texas Department of Transportation 2012 accident data.
That rate places Denton County in second place for those types of accidents in North Texas — just behind Tarrant County and tied with Dallas and Collin counties.
Pedestrian rates are much lower compared to neighboring counties and cities, but they, too, have increased since 2009. Local and state officials say that with a growing population, it’s normal to see more accidents.
According to police officials and records obtained from the Denton Police Department, it takes only seconds for a normal commute to turn into an accident that could include minor or major injuries, even fatalities.
And often, the accidents are the result of a distracted driver or someone violating traffic laws.
Many records tell stories of bicyclists who pedal through stop signs, pedestrians dashing into streets as cars approach, and inattentive motorists failing to yield the right of way.
Additionally, a records analysis shows a nearly even split between motorists and pedestrians/cyclists regarding who was at fault for the accidents.
Denton police Lt. Tom Woods says it’s a two-way street — no pun intended — when it comes to improving road relations because motorists are as much at fault for accidents as the cyclists and pedestrians involved.
Woods has been a cyclist for more than 25 years. He started cycling to diet and to quit smoking, he said. Though the diet “hasn’t gone so well,” Woods joked, he hasn’t smoked since 1990.
At one point in his career, Woods also served on the police department bicycle unit, and he trains bicycle patrol officers on evasive maneuvers, perpetrator takedowns and cycling in traffic.
“The essence of it is that if everyone obeyed traffic laws, we would reduce accidents by a great number. It’s on both sides,” he said. “Education is the only way to bring the two together to see both sides of the coin and understand the safety issues.”
Many feel that education would help improve road etiquette.
At the intersection of University Drive and Fulton Street, just before 9 a.m. one day, Aaron Fulton, 23, patiently waited for the traffic light to change to green before cycling through the intersection, witnesses told police.
When the light changed, Fulton pedaled through but just as he nearly made it safely to the opposite side, a red two-door Chevrolet Cavalier traveling westbound ran the red traffic light and struck him.
The driver sped away, according to police reports.
Fulton escaped without injury, but records show he’s one of the lucky ones. On June 8, Michael Brubaker wasn’t so lucky, records show.
Brubaker was taken to Denton Regional Medical Center by Denton medics after he was hit by an oncoming vehicle and knocked off his bike. Brubaker was crossing Fort Worth Drive, and allegedly failed to yield to a blue Toyota Corolla.
Accidents between a motorist and either a pedestrian or cyclist make up about 2 percent of traffic accidents in Denton. About 85 percent of those accidents since 2008 resulted in an injury, and during that same period, five pedestrians were killed.
“The chances for injuries are obviously greater for cyclists and pedestrians than [people in] vehicles,” Woods said.
A map of all accidents since 2008 involving a motorist and either a pedestrian or a bicyclist shows that a majority of the accidents occur along or south of University Drive, including areas near UNT and Texas Woman’s University and areas leading into Denton’s center.
Countywide, rates for accidents between vehicles and cyclists per 100,000 vehicles are nearly as high as accident rates in the more populated counties of Tarrant and Dallas. And a little more than half of all accidents in the county, on average, happen in Denton.
State data projections estimate that the city of Denton is expected to grow by about 30,000 residents every 10 years for the next five decades. The city’s population is projected to hit 330,000 by 2070.
And more people will mean more vehicles, more pedestrians and more cyclists, local and state officials say.
“No telling what the city will look like in a few years, but the population is increasing,” Woods said. “Every day, I see more and more people jogging, walking their dogs and riding their bicycles.”
Statewide, accidents have stayed relatively the same each year with little change since 2010. But data from 1994 show accident rates and fatalities were much higher nearly 20 years ago.
Many of the accidents then, like today, were related to a cyclist, pedestrian or motorist’s behavior, with most common reasons being “failure to yield the right of way” or “improper crossing of an intersection or roadway.”
When motorists, pedestrians or cyclists disobey traffic laws, it changes how they view each other, Woods said.
It damages the road-sharing relationship, he added.
“And an immediate wall [of] disrespect goes up,” he said.
In Denton’s downtown Square, two bicyclists head northbound on Locust Street. The cyclists appeared comfortable despite the obvious size difference between their bikes and the two-ton vehicles beside them.
They stop at each traffic light, they use proper signals before changing lanes and they veer to the right to let cars, which are traveling much faster, pass them.
It’s a textbook example of what road etiquette looks like.
But despite the efforts made by many residents to improve road relations, some drivers believe that roads should be only for motor vehicles, which greatly outnumber cyclists.
“They [cyclists] think they own the roads and they hold up traffic,” said resident Kris Peeples. “In smaller cities and around the universities, I think cycling is OK. But elsewhere — I don’t think so.”
Peeples said that confrontations with cyclists on the road have ruined her idea of what sharing the road means and she believes accidents happen because there’s a lack of respect on both ends.
“Roads are for cars. It’s just safer if you’re in one,” she said. “Yes, there are cyclists on the roads and it’s normal to see them, but we live in a culture where you’re only looking out for other cars.”
Road etiquette could be better, many residents say. Some residents don’t mind sharing the road as long as everyone is courteous.
“There are some bad eggs out there,” said Joe Holland III, a Denton resident, longtime cyclist and an employee of Denton Bicycle Center.
Overall, road etiquette isn’t bad, he said, but it isn’t great either.
“I think cyclists need to work a little harder because I don’t think they communicate enough,” Holland said. “But it’s like driving a car. When you’re in a car, you have signal lights, brake lights and other signals that communicate what you’re going to do before you do it.
“When you’re on a bike, you don’t have all of those conveniences so you need to be aware and conscious of that and exaggerate your presence so people know you’re there.”
Every two to three months, the Denton Police Department offers classes for cyclists who want to learn how to ride in traffic.
“It can be a little scary riding in traffic,” said Woods, who teaches the class.
He teaches cyclists how to ride without fear and how to practice defensive manners to ensure their safety. If more educated people are on the road, fewer accidents will happen, he said, which is important because the population is increasing.
“I see more and more people who look like they are cycling for transportation than for fun,” Woods said.
About 445 Denton residents ages 16 and older claim to use their bicycles as a primary means of transportation to work, according to 2010 census data. But the data does not include high school or university students who only use their bikes to commute to school or residents who bike for recreation.
Woods said he knows the cyclist population is growing and one day he hopes to offer his classes more often. In his class, Woods teaches proper lane placement for cyclists and accident avoidance drills.
But his favorite lesson to teach is common sense, he said.
“Just because the law says you can ride on the road doesn’t always mean you should,” Woods said. “Yeah, you have a right to the road, but if the speed limit is 50 mph and you’re in the road, you’re probably putting yourself at risk. Just don’t do it.”
Adopted in February 2012, Denton’s bike and pedestrian plan came after a series of meetings with the public and a focus group in 2010-11.
The bike and pedestrian plan, which is part of the city's mobility plan, provides for redesigning many city streets, primarily by designating some routes as shared roadways and by adding bike lanes, shoulders or wide curb lanes to existing roads. Off-road bike paths are also in the plan.
And little by little, the city has incorporated the bike and pedestrian plan into ongoing city projects, Woods said.
While many bike paths are planned along the city’s edge, two are also planned for major thoroughfares, including one along Dallas Drive and another along Mayhill Road.
In the city’s center, residents advocated for improvements along many streets and intersections, including University Drive, Loop 288 and the Oak-Hickory and Elm-Locust corridors.
On just those six streets in the past five years, there have been 47 accidents between motorists and pedestrians or cyclists, including two fatal pedestrian accidents.
Because the city went to the expense of hiring consultants and working with residents, City Council member Dalton Gregory said he views the plan as a contract with residents that city leaders should do their best to implement.
He has continued to advocate for funding to implement the bike and pedestrian plan, but it’s been slow slogging. The plan identified 35 miles of bike routes that could be completed fairly quickly, with another 35 miles of routes and lanes that could be in place within the next 10 years. All 70 miles of bike routes and lanes are estimated to cost $2.6 million.
Last year, the council dedicated $50,000 to begin implementing the plan, but little of that money was spent as bike lanes were added only to a few streets near UNT. At a workshop looking ahead at the 2013-14 budget, Gregory lobbied for a metric — that the city measure itself against a goal of implementing 7 miles per year — but the idea didn’t get much traction.
In addition to marking lanes to help improve safety, the bike and pedestrian plan also includes education, encouragement and enforcement elements.
Woods said city-appointed committees are now reviewing and developing plans to ensure the 2012 bike and pedestrian plan becomes a reality.
The draft is still in the beginning stages, Woods said, but he added it will contain some type of education and enforcement programs that he expects to kick off soon.
After visiting with the city bike official in Portland, Ore., and cycling around there, Gregory said he experienced firsthand the difference in the traffic culture. He learned it would likely take just 6 percent to 8 percent of Denton residents commuting to work and school by bicycle to trigger enough change in traffic patterns and how drivers behave.
He knows the tensions between drivers and bicyclists who share the road, from firsthand experience and from residents. Because he bicycles both on- and off-road, Gregory often hears from constituents after they witness a traffic violation by a cyclist.
“I also drive a pickup, but no one tells me about things they see pickup drivers do,” Gregory said.
That change in traffic culture doesn’t mean bicyclists aren’t held accountable, too, he said. The city shouldn’t be reluctant to ticket bicyclists for violating traffic rules. However, they may find it easier to do once Denton can offer a “defensive bicycling” class that affords the chance for a ticketed cyclist to wipe his or her record clean after a first violation.
Once that change takes place, the city may find that fostering a safer culture for bicyclists doesn’t necessarily mean more engineering expense for bike lanes and paths, Gregory said. Portland hasn’t spent a lot on new facilities in recent years, he said.
As the community grows, more and more cyclists hit the streets and with that, officers require additional training, Traffic Patrol Sgt. Daryn Briggs said.
“It’s a work in progress and more training is already in the works,” he said.
In a related item, Gregory said he doubted that he and others on the City Council want to spend much energy on an ordinance requiring adult bicyclists to wear helmets.
However, if accident data shows visibility has been a contributing factor in some accidents, council members may be willing to take another look at the city’s rules. The council flirted with the idea of requiring bicyclists to install and use more reflectors and lights than required by state law, but did not adopt an ordinance.
“We may be willing to revisit the discussion we’d had,” Gregory said.
Residents have been keeping a close eye on the city’s efforts, and they haven’t been afraid to voice their criticisms on blogs and social media. A recent blog post on Bike Denton criticized the city for failing to include bike lanes on future Denton streets.
Recent accidents this summer near the Square also captured the attention of council member Kevin Roden, who asked city staff to examine potential “traffic calming measures” for Denton’s center to increase pedestrian safety.
The staff report, which was completed and released earlier this month, lists several suggestions the city could pursue to increase safety, including eliminating left turns on red lights and making changes to parking on the Square. And based on historical data, city staff expects another increase in accidents.
If history is any indicator, sharing the road has been a concern for a long time. The first vehicle accident in the U.S. happened in New York City in 1896, when a vehicle hit a bicyclist, according to U.S. traffic data.
Some residents may agree to disagree on how the road should be shared, but Woods said he believes they must learn to work together because motor vehicles aren’t the only ones with the right of way to the road.
Staff members Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe, Megan Gray and Molly Tester contributed to this report.
JOHN D. HARDEN can be reached at 940-566-6882 and via Twitter at @JDHarden.