Elkhart records 91 accidents involving bicycles in four years, prompting proposed three-foot buffer

Bike buffer advocates touting statistics in effort to pass city ordinance.

Posted on July 30, 2014 at 4:44 p.m.

ELKHART — Danny Graber and other bicycling advocates believe too many motorists take bicyclists for granted and a list of accidents over a four-year period in the city of Elkhart reaffirms that suspicion.

Among 91 reported accidents involving vehicles and bicyclists since 2010, one of the things that stood out for Graber, president of Bike Elkhart, was the number of times motorists fled the scene.

About one in five motorists involved in a bike-related accident drove away without waiting for police, according to information provided by the Elkhart Police Department.

That information underscores a bigger problem.

“Those accident reports point out the lack of respect bicyclists get in some ways,” Graber said.

The accident data was provided by the city as the Elkhart City Council considers an ordinance that would require drivers to give a three-foot buffer when passing bicyclists on city streets.

Most of the accidents on the list did not assign blame and did not mention whether there were injuries, but a review of the incidents suggests motorists appeared to be at fault in more than a third of the cases, while bicyclists appeared to be at fault in almost as many others.

The overwhelming majority occurred at intersections, but numerous other accidents happened parking lots, alleys and driveways where motorists might be less likely to be looking for bicyclists.

In general, Graber said he believes most of the drivers are respectful of bicyclists, but believes an exception to that is when drivers are behind a bicyclist with oncoming traffic ahead.

Instead of waiting for oncoming traffic to clear, Graber said, motorists behind a bicycle will often try to squeeze through, which can force on-coming traffic and bicyclists to veer away to make room, creating a potentially more dangerous situation.

“I have seen that many, many times,” Graber said.

It is that scenario that the proposed ordinance in Elkhart would try to address by requiring a buffer. The plan would include a $25 fine for a violation.

The city council could take up the issue as soon as Monday, Aug. 4, when it formally receives unanimous recommendation from a council committee in support of the proposal.

Four other Indiana cities have adopted a similar policy. Those include Fort Wayne, South Bend, Indianapolis and Carmel, according to Graber.

Across the nation, 26 states have established laws governing the safe passing policies that includes bicycles, according to Nancy Tibbett, executive director of Bicycle Indiana.

Proposals that would establish a similar policy in Indiana have been introduced in the Indiana General Assembly in recent years, but those have been stalled at the committee level, Tibbett said.

Jim Brotherson, another biking enthusiast, said movement on the local level could eventually force the state legislature to take action.

“What we have is a chance for Elkhart to be on the leading edge of Indiana communities that are thoughtful about cycling,” Brotherson said. 

From the Indiana Driver’s Manual
The three-foot buffer concept is already recommended in the Indiana driver’s manual. Here is some of what the manual says about bicyclists.
■ Drivers must routinely share the roadway with bicycles. On most roadways, bicyclists have the same rights and responsibilities as other roadway users.
■ Drivers may pass a bicyclist only when there is a safe amount of room beside the bicyclist (three-foot minimum) and when there is no danger from oncoming traffic.
■ Drivers must yield the right-of-way to a bicyclist just as they would to another vehicle.
■ Bicyclists are prohibited on limited-access highways, expressways and certain other marked roadways.
■ A bicyclist is not required to ride in a designated bike lane. Bicyclists have the right to use either the bike lane or the travel lane.

Leslie Biek, a traffic engineer for the city, helped assemble the list. She said the 91 accidents seemed like a lot, but didn’t have anything to compare it to.

Biek said she thinks the information could bolster support for passage of the ordinance, but also shows the need for more education.

Establishment of the ordinance could make bicyclists feel more comfortable riding in traffic instead of on sidewalks or against traffic, she said.

Biek said she noticed numerous accidents involving parking lots and alleys where motorists might not expect to encounter a bicyclist.

She said she also noticed numerous cases involving bicyclists using sidewalks or not following standard rules of the road.

Biek is a cycling enthusiast and said she prefers to use the right half of a traffic lane — especially when there is a passing lane available. Staying on the very outside of the lane, she said, tends to encourage motorists to attempt to squeeze through.

She said she realizes motorists don’t like slowing down for bicyclists, but compares it to postal trucks and Amish buggies.

“As a traffic engineer, I don’t care if people have to slow down.”



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