n early June, I noted that there had been no fatal bike crashes so far this year in Chicago. “I’m crossing my fingers that this year’s good luck streak continues,” I wrote.
Tragically, it didn’t. Since then, two people have lost their lives while biking in Chicago.
I’ve also heard of at least 11 collisions that occurred since June 12 that resulted in injuries, many more than usually cross my desk in a month. At least three of those incidents resulted in serious injuries.
Anecdotally, this seems to be an unusually high number of bike crashes for a 30-day period. But it’s a difficult thing to prove, since collisions that don’t result in serious injuries or fatalities often go unreported. And while the Illinois Department of Transportation is responsible for documenting local crashes, the agency doesn’t release its findings until about two years after the fact.
So going by the anecdotal evidence, if there has indeed been an uptick in bike crashes, what factors are to blame? And what we should be doing differently to bring these numbers down?
The first crash of the recent wave to draw widespread attention was the June 15 death of 29-year-old courier Blaine Klingenberg, who was fatally struck by tour bus driver Charla A. Henry during the evening rush at Michigan and Oak.
The second fatality occurred July 1 around 9 AM, when a 28-year-old male flatbed truck driver struck 25-year-old Virginia Murray while she was riding a Divvy in Avondale. Video from a nearby gas station’s security camera shows the truck was facing north on Sacramento, stopped at the light at Belmont. As Murray rode up to the right of the truck, the light changed and the driver turned east, striking her. The driver, who works for nearby AB Hardwood Flooring and Supplies, has so far been issued only a citation for not having the proper driver’s license classification to drive the truck.
Until a few weeks ago Murray worked in marketing for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, Divvy’s sponsor. She had been preparing to apply for graduate school in library sciences. A spokeswoman for Blue Cross described Murray as “an avid Divvy supporter, a wonderful employee, and a special person.”
The first of the three crashes that resulted in serious injuries took place on June 21 at the intersection of Wilson and the Lakefront Trail. At around 7:20 PM, a 61-year-old man who has not been named by police was bicycling north on the path and was critically injured by an eastbound SUV driver as he crossed Wilson. The driver, Liliana Flores, 32, received three traffic citations.
On the evening of June 26, Nick Fox, a popular employee of Obbie’s Pizza in Garfield Ridge, was struck by two freight trains on railroad tracks near 60th and Narragansett while biking home from a church carnival. Fox, 52, suffered a broken pelvis and bleeding on the brain.
On July 3, around 9:45 AM, a 21-year-old man was biking north on the 3500 block of North Damen in Roscoe Village when a female motorist opened her door in the man’s path, causing him to crash. The door edge cut the man’s neck; he was bleeding profusely when off-duty police officer Sean Hayes arrived and performed first aid to stem the hemorrhage until paramedics showed up, possibly saving the man’s life. Although dooring a cyclist in Chicago carries a $1,000 fine, it appears the driver was not ticketed, according to Police News Affairs.
—CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey
Bike-focused attorney Michael Keating (a Streetsblog sponsor) says his firm has received multiple requests for representation from crash survivors in recent weeks. “A simple [explanation] would be that with warmer weather there is an increase in the number of bicyclists in Chicago,” he says. Cheap gasoline, and the resulting increase in driving, may be another factor. “But my sense is that many of these crashes involve a lack of respect for the bicyclist and their right to the roadway,” Keating says.
He’s particularly concerned about so-called “right-hook” crashes, like the one that ended Murray’s life. “The reason that these types of crashes are so common is simple: the motorist does not see the bicyclist even though they have the opportunity to do so,” Keating says. “The motorist typically makes the turn without ever checking for other traffic—including bicycles.”
CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey wouldn’t speculate as to whether there’s been an uptick in crashes this summer, but says that “one life lost in a traffic crash is unacceptable, and these two recent fatal crashes are a sad reminder that life-altering events can occur at any moment,” referring to the deaths of Klingenberg and Murray. “Our goal is to reduce serious injury crashes and eliminate fatal crashes for all users of the roadway.”
Active Transportation Alliance advocacy director Jim Merrell addressed the recent series of bike crashes in a blog post last week. Each year about 3,000 people are injured while biking in the Chicago region, Merrell noted, and about 15 are killed. Still, biking in Chicago actually appears to be getting safer, Merrell wrote. While the percentage of trips to work made by bike has increased by about 200 percent since 2000, the number of crashes has stayed about the same, which means that the crash rate has been declining.
“These recent events should not discourage us from working to promote biking and walking, but steel our resolve to do better,” he wrote.
The Active Transportation Alliance has been pushing the city to adopt a “Vision Zero” plan to eliminate traffic deaths, similar to the plans adopted in cities such as New York. CDOT is expected to produce a preliminary Vision Zero plan this fall. Active Trans is also advocating for more state funding for “Safe Routes to School” programs that create better walking and biking infrastructure around schools and educate kids about traffic safety.
One person who urgently wants to see the crash epidemic come to an end is Avondale resident Anthony Arce, 32, who delivers food by bicycle and car. He was driving to work on Belmont when he saw the flatbed driver run over Murray.
Shaken by what he’d witnessed, he broke the news on a local bike-selling forum, and asked if anyone could donate an old cycle so that he could install a white-painted “ghost bike” monument at the site to honor the fallen rider. Kristen Green, a board member of the South Chicago Velodrome Association, provided an old Schwinn cruiser with a step-through frame, not unlike a Divvy.
A relative of Murray’s reached out to Arce, Green, and other organizers to give the project the family’s blessing and ask that the installation ceremony be rescheduled to July 10 from July 7, the date of the funeral, so that loved ones could attend.
Murray’s case is personal for Arce. “When I saw Virginia on the ground, I just kind of lost it,” he says. “It was a block away from my house. That could have been me.” v