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The Cyclist and the Damage Done

The Philly Post: The Cyclist and the Damage Done

By Brian Howard, 12/13/2011

Why the tragic death of a Lehigh Valley man should lead to a change in the vehicle code

When a cyclist is struck and killed by a car, the description of events, no matter how vaguely worded, always send chills up my spine. Even by those standards, the death last week of Bethlehem cycling safety advocate Patrick Ytsma was difficult to swallow.

Ytsma’s bicycle, according to the Easton Express-Times and WFMZ-TV, was struck from behind while he was crossing the Fahy Bridge in Bethlehem by an SUV driven by a 79-year-old woman a week ago Sunday. Ytsma was taken off life support on Wednesday with no expectation that he’d survive. He passed away Thursday.

“It’s a sad time,” his mother, Itie Ytsma, told the Morning Call. “He was in a terrible state and had a lot of damage.”

It’s that last detail that gets me, that always gets me.

“A lot of damage.”

It’s revealing in its restraint; it tells you nothing while telling you everything important. This was a brutal event.

Now before you start spouting about reckless cyclists and irresponsible fixed-gear bikes and how there shouldn’t be a bike lane on the street you take to get to the highway, consider that Ytsma, 53, was no daredevil hipster: he was this guy, by all accounts a true believer in cycling safety, as well as in the transformative and environmental power of bicycle transportation. He was involved with a group called Coalition for Appropriate Transportation which advocates for cycling and public transit. (Not surprisingly, it’s just been reported that Ytsma became the Lehigh Valley’s first green burial.) While no information has been released with regard to any kind of police investigation—it’s been ruled an accident—Ytsma’s loss, and the way that it happened, is devastating, even for someone like me who never knew the man.

It speaks to a lot of things, not the least of which being a change in attitude regarding bikes and cars and their relationship to each other.

I’m an avid cyclist myself; I’ve wiped out at high speeds on a bike without the help of an automobile and can attest that it’s easy enough to cause some real damage all by one’s self. Add two tons of glass, plastic and steel moving at high speeds to the equation, and the combination is sickly, deadly.

Having been passed recklessly by autos more times than I care to count—and having a neighbor who somehow survived getting hit by a passing SEPTA bus—it makes you wonder why more drivers aren’t more careful where cyclists are involved.

Way back in 2006, a Bath University study came out that indicated that cyclists who do the responsible thing and wear protective gear such as helmets are actually knocked down more frequently, and passed more closely, by automobiles. According to Dr. Ian Walker, a traffic psychologist with the university, “This study shows that when drivers overtake a cyclist, the margin for error they leave is affected by the cyclist’s appearance.”

While the results may not be brand new, they very much speak to the fact that, from an evolutionary standpoint, the human brain has yet to catch to the very rapid advances in human propulsion, and that a car doesn’t have to be going all that fast to have a very good chance of killing a pedestrian.

That drivers are less careful around cyclists they think are “protected” reveals that as humans’ capacity for rage skyrockets when they get behind the steering wheel of their car, so too does their capacity for basic physics plummet. Cyclists, helmets or no, are basically no more protected than the average pedestrian—which is to say incredibly vulnerable. It’s one of the many points the annual Philly Naked Bike Ride tries to hammer home: A thin layer of cloth notwithstanding, cyclists are just flesh and bones out there. (Full disclosure, I was involved in the organization of the first two PNBRs.)

I see two appropriate actions in the wake of this tragedy:

First, as fuel gets more scarce and more expensive, cycling will continue to become more important and widespread, especially in dense urban areas. Which means that dedicated cycling infrastructure—of the variety that, like in places like the Netherlands and other bike-friendly locales, put actual physical barriers between automobile and bicycle traffic—will be vital to progressive, sustainable urban transportation. (The proposed Market Street bike lanes are a good step.)

Second, until a system of separate bike thoroughfares can be realized, it’s important to give cyclists stronger protections under the law. A bill currently before Pennsylvania’s State House, Bill 170, an amendment to the vehicle code, attempts that (among other non-cycling related safety measures). It includes language that stipulates, “The driver of a motor vehicle overtaking a pedalcycle proceeding in the same direction shall pass to the left of the pedalcycle within not less than four feet at a careful and prudent reduced speed” and “No turn by a driver of a motor vehicle shall interfere with a pedalcycle proceeding straight while operating in accordance with Chapter 35 (relating to special vehicles and pedestrians).”

(Pedalcycle is, for whatever reason, Pennsylvania legalese for “bike.”)

It should be passed. There is no question. If you’d like to help to that end, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia recommends signing this petition in support of it.

But perhaps the most important result of this tragedy would be a better understanding on the part of drivers of just how fragile cyclists, and how deadly their ever-bigger vehicles can be—two facts that seem farther away from most drivers’ minds than ever.