Moving the needle down on cyclist and pedestrian deaths

Published: Sunday, April 14, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, April 13, 2013 at 12:03 a.m.

The last time I was in downtown Tampa, maybe eight years ago, I was on a bicycle and had a rather spirited exchange with a red-faced gentleman in a pickup truck.

Well, not exactly an exchange. He harshly questioned my parentage and my IQ, and I made no effort to correct him on either score, not being the argumentative sort.

It was a contention over lane rights of the sort that happens a thousand times a day in AutoAmerica. From the driver's point of view I simply didn't belong on his mean street. And to be fair, I could see his point. Tampa regularly makes the list of the nation's most deadly cities for cyclists and pedestrians; along with Jacksonville, Orlando and Miami.

But I love urban cycling. I've ridden in Chicago, New York, Denver, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C and in most Florida metros. It's the best way I know to connect with the heart and rhythm of a city.

And here's the thing. We often forget that cities exist to bring people, not automobiles, together.

On Thursday I returned to Tampa and was pleasantly surprised to discover that the city on the bay is slowly and methodically making efforts to be a more walkable and bikable community.

I saw bike lanes and bike paths where none had existed before. Police cars had bumper stickers reminding motorists that they must allow three-feet of clearance when passing a bicycle. A safety education initiative called Walk Wise/Bike Smart is aimed at improving the survival rate among pedestrians and cyclists. Soon, Tampa will join some 40 other American cities in launching a bike share program.

I was in town because U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood had chosen Tampa to host the Southeast Regional Bicycle Safety Summit. LaHood took a bicycle tour of Tampa's Riverwalk area, and then announced a national campaign to dramatically reduce the number of pedestrian and cycling deaths in America.

"We need to have zero tolerance for people who don't respect cyclists," he said in opening the summit. "If somebody is not respectful of cyclists, there needs to be a penalty involved. We need to continue this effort until we reduce cyclist deaths to zero. What a great goal."

It is a paradox unique to our auto-oriented culture that while highway deaths in general have been on the decline for years, cycling and pedestrian fatality rates continue to rise. And Florida is the most dangerous state of all for people who desire to get from one place to another without the assistance of an automobile.

More than 500 cyclists died in Florida between 2006 and 2010, LaHood said. In 2008 alone Florida, with about 6 percent of the nation's population, accounted for 17 percent of all cycling deaths and more than 11 percent of pedestrian fatalities.

Reducing that fatality rate won't be easy, cheap or quickly accomplished. It will require a concerted effort on three fronts: Engineering improvements — more bike lanes, bike paths, sidewalks and so on — enhanced education, and, yes, tougher enforcement. Police not only need to crack down on careless motorists, but get tough on jaywalkers and errant cyclists who put themselves at risk.

"Police officers aren't as educated about pedestrian laws and bicycle laws as they should be," Hillsborough Sheriff's Office Major Tim Burton admitted during a panel discussion. "It's just not a hot topic at the police academy."

Moving the needle downward on bike-ped deaths in a nation that designed its roadways to facilitate fast driving may sound like a fool's errand. What LaHood is talking about will require nothing less than a fundamental change in the very culture of American driving.

But he reminds us that over the past 20 years, thanks to tougher laws and "Click It or Ticket" campaigns, seat belt use in America went from practically nonexistent to 86 percent among current drivers.

And it required organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving to help stigmatize the deadly habit of drinking and driving before lawmakers would finally respond with "zero tolerance" DUI laws.

What's at stake is the very livability of our communities, "a society we can all enjoy," said David Strickland, administrator of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. "Frankly, getting ourselves out of cars and walking and riding makes us a healthier, happier and ultimately more cohesive nation."

Share the road, America. It belongs to us all.

Ron Cunningham is the former editorial page editor of The Sun. He is also executive director of Bike Florida.

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