Bikes, cars & safe co-habitation: Santa Cruz is among the most dangerous cycling counties in the state
Santa Cruz County has three times as many people biking to work as the national average in addition to thriving road cycling and mountain biking scenes. It also is among the state’s leaders in cyclist fatalities and injuries.
While May is Bike Month and a celebration of the cyclist’s paradise that Santa Cruz County is, some avid riders balance their love of the sport with personal experiences of how dangerous sharing the road with cars can be.
Especially here, a place that ranks among the state’s most deadliest for cyclists.
It’s a time of solidarity for those like Greg Braithwaite, who gather for an event called Ride of Silence in memory of riders killed or injured by motor vehicles. Braithwaite, 46, and Santa Cruz’s Ride of Silence ambassador for this year’s trip Wednesday, got involved with the worldwide event after his friend Josh Alper was killed while biking on Highway 1 north of Santa Cruz in 2013.
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“The ride is not necessarily sad,” Braithwaite said. “It’s a serious topic, sure. But for me … remembering how Josh used to love cycling and having that chance to do so on the ride is more celebratory.”
But Braithwaite acknowledges that the effects of such tragedies go well beyond the cycling world. And Santa Cruz County is more widely affected than most: With three times as many people biking to work as the national average in addition to thriving road cycling and mountain biking scenes, the county is among the state’s leaders in cyclist fatalities and injuries.
In 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, the county ranked fourth in such fatalities and injuries among counties of similar size, with 52 killed or injured in accidents involving vehicles. Further, the California Office of Traffic Safety reported, of all the accidents that caused fatalities or injuries that year, nearly 28% affected a bicyclist.
Braithwaite said the Ride of Silence event in Santa Cruz has typically been small, bringing together 10 to 12 people. They ride slowly and in silence along a 5- to 8-mile route to be determined “based on our general vibe,” according to the public Facebook invite. But it’s not so much about the numbers as about raising awareness of bikes on the road and remembering those who have been killed or whose lives were altered by injuries.
Braithwaite, a Santa Cruz resident and high school teacher in San Jose, said he sees the increase in green bike lanes and redesigned intersections as “positive steps but not the end of the line.” He hopes that educating drivers and increasing awareness of cyclists on the road can help prevent injuries and deaths.
The county Health Services Agency operates coalitions in North and South County that are working to end deaths and serious injuries among cyclists and pedestrians.
The agency has implemented Vision Zero, a set of strategies first devised in Sweden in the 1990s and brought to San Francisco in 2014, with a focus on prioritizing safety and putting human life and health ahead of convenience for everyone moving around the community.
Excessive speed remains a major cause of deaths and injuries in Santa Cruz County, with 33% of crashes caused by speeding vehicles, according to a 2017 report by the county’s Community Traffic Safety Coalition.
Improper turning and right-of-way violations caused 33%, and drugs or alcohol were involved in 11% of crashes — all of which is bad news for the high number of cyclists sharing the roads with motor vehicles.
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Theresia Rogerson, who is the county’s senior health educator and who works with the CTSC, said the culture around bicycle and pedestrian safety is shifting away from thinking of deaths and injuries as an inevitable part of the system.
We no longer accept death and injury in the workplace, she said, and there’s no reason to accept that the people using our transportation systems and corridors should be victims.
Among its recommendations for cities and local governments, Vision Zero advocates that the term “accident,” which implies an unavoidable event, be replaced with “crash,” which implies human error and signifies something that can be prevented.
Traffic-calming measures and rethinking how cities are engineered are key strategies in the Vision Zero playbook for reducing fatalities. Creating separate spaces for cars and bikes and extending curbs to reduce speeds are some ways reengineering the urban environment can save lives.
The Santa Cruz Police Department, for its part, is using Bike Month as an opportunity to educate cyclists and drivers alike.
“Bicyclists are safest when they act like and are treated the same as drivers,” Sgt. Michael Hedley said. “Please share the road with bicyclists and think of them as your closest friends or family. We all want to get where we need to go safely, whether that’s in the car or on a bike.”