October 8, 2003

Bicycle Safety An Issue At C.U.

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In light of an accident involving a bicyclist and pedestrian on Ho Plaza last week, the issue of bicycle safety has become increasingly significant on the Cornell campus.

Like nearly any city or town, interactions between pedestrians and motorists will always present problems, but the typical college campus must also be prepared to accommodate a significant number of bicyclists. As it becomes more difficult to find parking on campus and as students deal with classes that meet in a variety of locales, bicycles have become a popular means of transportation.

“I wish bicycle riders would adhere to the rules of the road … because of my numerous run ins with bicyclists I wear protective gear to shield myself from bodily injury,” said Diana Cartwright ’06.

Indeed, it is the “mix,” as Sgt. Chuck Howard of the Cornell University Police Department (CUPD) coins it, that causes the largest number of safety issues on the campus.

A veteran of more than 30 years, Howard has seen the number of motor vehicles, bicycles and students all rise steadily. “Too many people, too many bicycles, too many pedestrians,” he said. “It’s the overall mix that causes the problem.”

Sue Marrow, an administrator with transportation and mail services, who has dealt extensively with transportation issues on campus, agreed. “As the campus builds up,” said Marrow, “it becomes more difficult to get where you’re going.”

“There’s no easy solution [to the size problem],” Sgt. Howard said. “Unless you have a total pedestrian campus, [eliminating transportation problems] just can’t be done.”

In response to problems created by new people and new buildings, efforts have been stepped up in multiple areas to combat traffic problems.

Dan Lieb ’89, communications and marketing manager for transportation and mail service, said “We do postering, we do newspaper ads, we have a brochure we produce.”

Also, according to Marrow, her department teaches courses in bicycle safety that range from three to 12 hours and help people who are not experienced with riding in congested areas make that transition.

Perhaps as significant of a problem as the sheer volume of students on roads and pathways is a lack of knowledge on the part of cyclists. “If a person wants to drive an automobile, they have to study, they have to practice and they have to pass a test,” pointed out Sgt. Howard. “Anyone can buy a bicycle and ride it on their own. You can be ignorant [about safety rules] and just start riding.”

“One thing that quite a few cyclists don’t seem to realize is that municipal laws in most of the state prohibit cyclists on pedestrian walkways,” Marrow said. In New York state, cyclists are, with few exceptions, governed by the same rules as motorists.

“If you run a stop sign,” said Sgt. Howard, “the penalty will be the same whether you’re on a bike or in a car.” Violations that occur on the shared walkways between pedestrians and cyclists, however, are referred to the Judicial Administrator, where fines and/or community service are the usual penalties.

Marrow and Lieb agree that many of the bicycle accidents that occur on campus may just be a result of cyclists’ unwillingness to abide by the rules — whether they are aware of them or not.

“The reality is that it’s not really dangerous if everyone follows the rules,” Marrow said. “The campus, as designed, is certainly safer than most areas,” Lieb added. “Because everything can’t be enforced at the same time, [safety] has a lot to do with cooperation.”

Sgt. Howard is a strong believer that “enforcement should be a deterrent.” Though the CUPD has received grants from the State to increase traffic safety programs, it is simply impossible for them to catch all of the bicycle violations that occur on a daily basis. Sgt. Howard, Marrow and Lieb all agreed that these violations lie at the heart of the problem.

Police department statistics provided by Sgt. Howard offer puzzling trends. On the one hand, the number of personal injury accidents involving motorists have decreased from 32 in 1999 to 22 in 2002. At the same time, accidents between motorists and cyclists have risen from three in 1998 to five in 2000, before ballooning to ten in 2002.

Sgt. Howard attributed these numbers to improvements in vehicle safety that have coincided with an increase in traffic: while injuries are occurring less then, it seems that accidents are occurring more.

Whatever the trends are, Sgt. Howard stressed that accidents involving cyclists account for a “relatively low” percentage of the overall accidents on campus, which are usually in the neighborhood of 225 to 250 per year.

Without fail, the experts all seem to agree that the best piece of advice they can offer to cyclists is to wear a helmet. Lieb has spoken with many very experienced cyclists who all reported that, “It’s not a matter of if you’ll get in a crash someday, it’s a matter of when.”

“If you don’t wear a helmet, you’re doing yourself a great injustice,” Howard said. “It’s absolutely ludicrous that people go out and buy a $700 dollar helmet and won’t buy a $35 helmet.”

“If you’ve got a brain that got you into Cornell,” Marrow added, “it’s worth protecting.”

Archived article by Billy McAleer