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Originally published February 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 4, 2008 at 4:02 PM

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Danger in the bike lane

Matt Corwin was pedaling home from work on his usual route when he approached the University Bridge. A line of cars waited at the red light...

Seattle Times transportation reporter

Safe cycling

Be visible. State law requires a headlight and rear reflector after dark, but riders should add a solid or blinking rear light. Wear bright or reflective clothes and reflective leg bands. A flag is good for short or recumbent cycles.

Use a rearview mirror. It can be mounted on a helmet or handlebar. It will be easier to gauge whether you can move out into the roadway, and whether approaching drivers are likely to pass you at a safe distance.

Avoid blind spots. Bicyclists on sidewalks, or who pass cars on the right, become virtually invisible to drivers.

Be predictable. Stake out a clear position. Don't weave frequently between the main roadway and the curb.

Use residential streets that run parallel to traffic-heavy corridors.

"Take the lane" when it's safer than being squeezed to the right, especially riding downhill.

Educate yourself. Two good online articles are "How to Not Get Hit by Cars" at bicyclesafe.com, and "Avoid the Suicide Slot" on Kent's Bike Blog.

Sources: BicycleSafe.com; Kent Peterson, Bicycle Alliance of Washington

Matt Corwin was pedaling home from work on his usual route when he approached the University Bridge. A line of cars waited at the red light, as Corwin cruised past in the bike lane.

As he reached the intersection, the light turned green. An SUV turned right -- into Corwin's path. Corwin squeezed his hand brakes. He stopped 2 feet from the SUV. The driver never saw him.

"I would have run into the side of his car, Corwin recalled. "It's not like he would have run over me. I probably would have bounced off. But still, it was pretty disconcerting."At this same corner, 19-year-old cyclist Bryce Lewis was killed by a dump truck Sept. 7, as it turned from Eastlake Avenue East onto Fuhrman Avenue East.

"Right-hook" collisions, as riders call them, are among the most common risks of urban cycling. A bike enters an intersection going straight and gets hit by a right-turning car.

It's a problem that cities such as Seattle must solve as they encourage thousands of people to switch from cars to bicycles. Mayor Greg Nickels has set a goal of tripling bicycle use within a decade.

Currently, the city estimates that 4,000 to 8,000 people cycle to work or school each weekday, depending on the weather, and 36 percent of residents ride for fun, errands or a commute at least occasionally.

The city's new Bicycle Master Plan calls for expanding the bike-lane network, now 31 miles, to 143 miles by 2016, and extending the trail system from 39 miles to 58 miles. To address right-hook crashes, Seattle this spring will attempt to make bike lanes at a few busy intersections more noticeable by painting them green, a strategy already tried by other cities.

Veteran cyclists warn that unless riders stay alert, a bike lane can lure them into danger.

"Avoid the Suicide Slot," warns an essay by Kent Peterson, commute director for the Bicycle Alliance of Washington. He generally uses bike lanes but will often move left into the car lane to make himself more visible as he approaches intersections.

David Smith, of Seattle, a part-time cycling instructor with the Bicycle Driver Training Institute, argues that bike lanes create a false sense of security, and he avoids them. "It is an enormous task to help bicyclists overcome that eye candy in the streets." He advocates mixing with traffic, or "bicycle driving."

Right hooks

In Portland, which has done some of the nation's best research on bike safety, recent data show that 10 percent of car-bike crashes are right hooks. They caused two of Portland's six bike fatalities last year.

In Gig Harbor, cyclist Gloria Lavick, 58, died July 5 after she went under a right-turning delivery truck.

At Seattle's University Bridge, a picture of Bryce Lewis and a white memorial "ghost bike" are mounted on a utility pole above the crash site, a daily reminder next to the bike lane.

Peterson describes the Eastlake-Fuhrman intersection as hazardous, where he would ride in the general traffic lane.

"I think this would actually be safer if there weren't a bike lane here," he said, "because what it does is, it encourages bicycle riders to crowd to the right, and that takes you out of the line of sight."

King County prosecutors are reviewing the case and have not announced whether the dump truck driver will face charges.

From 2003 to 2007, 20 accidents involving bicycles were reported in Seattle near the south end of the University Bridge.

On the other side of Lake Union, 36 bike accidents were reported on busy Dexter Avenue North, out of a total 1,217 citywide crashes involving bicycles. The city would not release details on types of crashes, including how many were right hooks.

Seattle law requires drivers to yield to cyclists in bike lanes -- but on the street, bike lanes usually aren't marked once riders enter an intersection. And often, riders will forge through a crossing without looking for cars that might turn.

Green lanes

In response to right-hook crashes, cities are trying to move bicyclists away from the curb at busy crossings.

The federal government's street-design manual encourages cities to replace a solid bike-lane stripe with a dotted line where bikes and cars are likely to cross paths. A dotted line warns cyclists that cars will be turning right, and it invites cyclists to move left into general traffic, said Rich Meredith, city traffic engineer in Shoreline.

Seattle is gingerly trying out new designs to see if they reduce conflicts between bicyclists and motorists turning at intersections.

Last year, parts of Stone Way North were repainted with new bike lanes that include dotted lines at several crossings.

At each end of the Fremont Bridge, road signs tell car drivers to yield to bikes -- southbound motorists turning right toward Seattle Pacific University will wait for the bicyclists pedaling straight, toward the Dexter Avenue North bike route. On a recent morning, many drivers were looking over their shoulders toward the bike lane, before making the turn.

"It's a big help," said rider Sean Sheldrake, who has commuted for 12 years. "A couple of $50 signs go a long way."

Similar issues exist at some trails, and Seattle has installed warning signs for drivers making turns across the Chief Sealth Trail on Beacon Hill.

This spring, Seattle will paint green bicycle lanes at four busy intersections, said Peter Lagerwey, a bicycling expert with the city's transportation department. The sites are southbound Dexter at Denny Way, both ends of the Fremont Bridge, and North 145th Street where Shoreline's new Interurban Trail meets the city limits.

Portland has used blue-colored bike lanes since the 1990s and is adding 13 similar lanes this year, to be painted green. City officials videotaped traffic and found that motorists yielded far more often to bikes in marked blue lanes -- and that cyclists glanced at cars less often, a problem. Still, drivers and cyclists said the streets seemed safer.

If upcoming experiments go well, Seattle's University Bridge is a top candidate for the next round of improvements, Lagerwey said.

New York City; Victoria, B.C.; Vancouver, B.C.; Portland; and several European cities have gone further by painting "bike boxes."

These are marked zones at stoplights, where bicycles can go to the head of a line of traffic. That gives bicyclists a head start to beat turning automobiles, once the light turns green. New York has 60 bike boxes, but it's too soon to measure whether safety has improved.

In Davis, Calif., the city has gone further, giving cyclists their own traffic signals, with bike icons replacing solid red, yellow and green lights, at complex intersections.

Kirkland is studying whether to try bike boxes in certain areas, said Councilman Tom Hodgson, a bicycle commuter. Hodgson said a dump truck turned and hit his bike about five years ago.

Bike advocates argue that safety will improve as the sight of more riders translates into better awareness by drivers.

"We are not at a critical mass of bicyclists on the road, that drivers are aware bicyclists are omnipresent," said Chuck Ayers, executive director of the Cascade Bicycle Club.

Ayers said the right-hook risk "is not an engineering issue. It is a taking-responsibility issue, for both drivers and cyclists."

Riding paranoid

There are other ways to get hit in a bike lane.

In so-called "left hook" crashes, left-turning drivers become so focused on avoiding oncoming cars that they miss a cyclist in the oncoming bike lane.

"They look for threats. That's how they're wired," Peterson said.

Like old cats, urban cyclists tend to develop survival instincts, such as assuming they are invisible to all drivers.

Hodgson has added a hand signal to his repertoire -- he now points straight ahead to show motorists he's proceeding straight.

"I just ride paranoid," said Sheldrake, who said he's been accident-free for 12 years in Fremont.

He will not pass a car on the right unless he makes eye contact first. That can mean shining his head-mounted, high-intensity light through the car window.

"It gets their attention, long enough to keep you from rolling over their hood," he said.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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