Sharing the Road: Bikes, Cars and Chicago Traffic

Earlier this summer we wrote about Chicago’s expanded use of bicycle lanes and trails as well as bicycle safety and the steps to take if you are involved in a bike accident. It is wonderful to see Chicago investing in bike paths and expanding its reputation as a bike friendly city. In fact, Chicago now has more than 290 miles of designated bike lanes. However, this expansion and increased ridership has recently brought bicycle safety to the urefront of public discussion. Just last week, the Chicago Tribune published an editorial lamenting that bicycle accidents, injuries and even fatalities are on the rise.

The statistics speak for themselves. The Tribune notes that since June, four bike riders have lost their lives in collisions between bicycles and automobiles. These accidents are not confined to a single area but span points as far west as Garfield Park to the Oak Street Beach lakefront. In fact, in 2014, there were 1,663 crashes between vehicles and bicycles, which represents a 27% increase over the number of similarly reported crashes in 2005. Likewise, fatalities are also on the rise.

The problem is not simply limited to Chicago. This past week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released a report showing that bicycle fatalities increased 12.2% between 2014 and 2015. Additionally, in 2015, more than 45,000 riders were injured in accidents, although this number was down slightly from 2014. The reasons for this are clear. Even as cities work to expand bike lanes, supply cannot out pace demand. For example, surveys conducted by the NHTSA showed that in 2002, less than 30% of respondents claimed to increase their ridership from the previous year. By 2012, that number had increased to more than 40%. This increase in ridership clogs the roads, increases traffic as well as the competition for needed space between bicycles and motorized vehicles.

The State of Illinois is taking affirmative action to try and decrease these alarming bicycle injury statistics. WTTW reports that on August 19 of this year, Governor Bruce Rauner signed “Dennis’s Law.” This law seeks to clarify the right of way rules of the road for cyclist and automobile drivers. The law is named after Dennis Jurs, a 68 year old resident of Hampshire, Illinois. Dennis was killed when his bike collided with a vehicle that had stopped at a stop sign but then proceeded even though Dennis was crossing the intersection and did not have a stop sign. The driver was not penalized for this accident because bicycles were not, at the time, clearly considered a vehicle. Therefore, automobile drivers were not required to yield the right of way to the bike rider. The law now classifies bicycles as a vehicle and explicitly states that bike riders shall be given all of the same rights as vehicle drivers. Dennis’s law takes effect on January 1, 2017.

Affirming this classification should go a long way towards ensuring drivers share and respect riders on the road. At the same time, it should also be noted that as a vehicle, bike riders have a number of responsibilities that they must follow as well. For all intents and purposes, under this new law, a bicycle is treated no differently than a car. The rider must obey stop signs, stop at red traffic lights and appropriately yield the right of way to other riders or drivers when approaching an intersection. A failure to do this may create liability for a rider who causes or contributes to an accident. It also makes riders eligible for the same types of traffic tickets often written for automobile drivers that do not follow the rules of the road.

Perhaps the Tribune sums it up best by noting that as long as bicycles and cars share the road, there is potential for confusion and accidents. So the best approach is to simply slow down, practice defensive cycling and proceed with caution so that you are always aware of your surroundings.