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Getting dead serious about bicycling

The Tampa Tribune: Getting dead serious about bicycling

Published: October 6, 2010

If a white bicycle memorial had been set up on the roadside for every bicyclist who has been killed, and similarly a ghostly white mannequin placed where every pedestrian has died, all of us living here might begin to recognize the outrageous toll our streets are taking on those who dare pedal or walk.

Every day more blood is spilled, per capita, on Tampa-area streets and sidewalks than just about anywhere else in the country. This is not news. It was true a decade ago, and to our shame, it's still true today.

Improvements have been made here and there, but Tampa and its suburbs can do much more to save lives and cash in on the economic value of having a bike-friendly community.

A visible difference between the best urban neighborhoods and the many mediocre ones is how safe and fun it is to take a walk or ride a bicycle through them.

Bicycling is serious business for many residents, who use bikes to get to work or school. Many more use bikes for recreation and exercise. These travelers deserve better protection.

Understanding that street safety is a prerequisite to civic progress, Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe wants the urban area to focus more attention on making streets and sidewalks less deadly.

He is bringing up the issue at today's county commission meeting. A starting point will be a list of reasonable suggestions from Alan Snel, an avid bicyclist and former Tribune reporter who represents the South West Florida Bicycle United Dealers. Among his good ideas are more signs and more bike lanes and paths.

Snell points out that the local bicyclist fatality rate is three times higher than the national average.

Other cities that have made pedestrian safety a priority have seen deaths and injuries decline. Tampa can do the same.

The long-range transportation plan for the county maps out many needed improvements. It anticipates 236 new miles of on-road cycling lanes and 177 new miles of trails, which are the safest places to bicycle and walk. A network of trails should be considered an essential part of the transportation system.

Making sure all the planned projects are built will help save lives. No new committees or task forces are needed. What is needed is political will.

And simply painting a bike lane to invite more biking where roads are narrow, traffic is fast and drivers are inconsiderate can't be expected to reduce deaths and injuries.

Public education and stricter enforcement of traffic laws must be part of the solution. It is never going to be safe to share a lane with distracted, aggressive drivers.

While bicyclists appear blameless in many of the recent fatal accidents, Bicyclesafe.com notes that 60 percent of bike collisions in Florida are caused by cyclists riding at night without lights.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that wearing a bicycle helmet will reduce the risk of head injury by 85 percent.

Bicyclists using major roads should be required to equip their bikes with flashing lights, loud horns and rearview mirrors.

It is true, as bicyclists point out, that bikes have as much right to be on the road as cars. The flip side of that right is that bicyclists and pedestrians have an obligation to follow traffic laws.

That means bicyclists should not go the wrong way on one-way streets or run traffic lights.

Although so-called "ghost" bikes are beginning to appear at sites where some local bicyclists have died, they will never adequately represent the many bicyclists and pedestrians who have died in recent years in preventable accidents.

Their deaths should haunt this community and provoke it to improve.