The Cyclist Diaries: The inconvenient truth about bike safety in Orange

One October evening in 2017, Jenny Gritton, a junior Environmental Science and Policy major, was riding her bike to a sorority event. She passed by the four-way intersection on Palm Avenue and Glassell Street when a driver in a parked car along the sidewalk opened his car door and knocked Gritton off her bike and into the street. Her head hit the ground, her bike was damaged, and she bruised her hands and legs. Fortunately for her, there were no other cars coming. But within the same week, she was hit again.

“Six months later, I still get nervous whenever I pass parked cars,” Gritton said. “It was really scary to experience something like that.”

In Orange County, bike accidents have risen by 40 percent since 2002, according to California Highway Patrol accident data. In 2011 alone, there were about 1,400 reported bike injuries in Orange County, most of which were to cyclists between the ages of 5 and 19. While Chapman encourages safe riding around campus on its website, students who choose biking as a means of transportation still struggle to stay safe in a driver-populated community.

Chief of Public Safety Randy Burba said Public Safety only gets a few calls during the school year concerning bike-related accidents. He said the reason for this isn’t because bike accidents don’t happen, but probably because the involved parties weren’t badly hurt or the accident happened in public streets rather than in the campus perimeter.

There were nearly 467,000 people injured in biking accidents in the U.S. in 2015, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This number rose by 12.2 percent from the year before according to the most recent final statistics released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2017.

Gritton said she was abiding by the bike laws when she got hit.

“I wish that everyone parked on the side of the road would check to make sure there’s not a bicyclist coming because it’s better to be safe than sorry,” Gritton said. “Even though you may not expect them to be there, bicyclists are going fast and shouldn’t be held responsible for a driver’s decision to not check their surroundings.”

Her second collision was caused by another driver while she was  biking on the sidewalk on Batavia Street. The driveway she was approaching was covered by a large hedge, which kept her from seeing the driver pulling out. The driver could not see her either.

“The driver backed into me and I fell onto the trunk of his car. Thankfully, the car broke my fall so when I fell on the ground, I didn’t get too injured,” Gritton said.

She experienced minor scratches on her body and damage to her bike, but Gritton said the emotional impact it has had on her is more long term.

“No biker should get hit by two cars in one week, let alone hit at all,” she said. “I have always loved to bike so having this constant fear now is unfair to me. It makes biking more about the means of transportation, rather than the joy of the ride. People who enjoy riding their bikes shouldn’t be emotionally punished for that.”

Stories like Gritton’s are not rare among Chapman students. Allison Grago, junior Psychology major, was hit by a car last spring near the crosswalk on N Grand St. and E Walnut Ave. The back half of her bike was destroyed under the driver’s front left tire and she sustained minor injuries. Like Gritton, Grago says the damage was more emotional than physical.

“There have been times since the accident when drivers don’t stop at stop signs and have come close to hitting me, which is a very scary thing to experience when you’ve already been hit. You feel more vulnerable after an accident because you see what damage a car can do. My bike was destroyed after only half of it was in contact with the car,” Grago said.

Now, both Grago and Gritton take extra precautions to keep themselves safe. Gritton stays alert to listen for car engines and completely avoids riding her bike on Batavia or Palm for fear of being hit again.

“I now ride with the assumption that I’m invisible. I just assume that no one can see so that it’s my responsibility to stay out of the way. That’s kind of the reality because no one really pays attention to whether or not there are bicyclists are on the road,” she said.

To prevent further biking accidents around campus, Gritton insists that drivers and cyclists need to learn the California bike laws and be aware of their surroundings at all times.

“I think it’s important to raise awareness. The streets aren’t wide enough to have parked cars, moving cars, and cyclists. It’s almost impossible to fix unless the local government is willing to put the time, money, and effort into it. A lot of drivers are disconnected to those who bike because they’re rare around Orange and therefore, care less and get frustrated with them. It is just lack of education.” Gritton said.

For Grago, biking is still an everyday activity but she admits that if she had been hurt more severely, she “would have been traumatized by the experience.”

The university has a page on its website dedicated to bike safety, which includes railroad track safety tips, general bike laws, and instructions on how to register a bike through Public Safety.

Unbeknownst to most, the university also offers a Bike Voucher Program to current Chapman students, faculty, and staff who meet the eligibility requirements. Those who qualify may receive a voucher worth $350 to use at local bike shops to purchase a bike, a U-lock, a helmet, or an upgrade on a current bike. It promotes this program to improve health and lower one’s contribution to air pollution, in addition to alleviating main campus’ infamous parking problems.

In the event of a crash, some proven ways to reduce the risk of injuries include wearing a helmet when riding, wearing fluorescent clothing to appear more visible, and using active lightings such as front white lights or rear red lights.

Despite the reality of bike accidents, some Chapman bike commuters admit they do not take safety regulations too seriously.

“I have such a short commute that it never feels unsafe to me and I don’t feel the need to wear a helmet. I have a light and reflectors but barely use them,” said Cameron Silzle, junior television writing and production major.

In California, persons aren’t required to wear a helmet if they are 18 or older, according to state biking laws.

Photo by CHLOE MAY

“I don’t wear a helmet in this area,” said Skye Barclay, a junior television writing and production major. “There are times when I don’t really want to stop because I loose all of my inertia, but that usually angers drivers,”

Not stopping at intersections – sometimes referred to as the “California Roll” –  has been a point for debate in California. The LA Times reported last year on a proposed bill that would make it legal for bicyclists to roll through stop signs. The law hasn’t been enacted statewide, but is being piloted in some cities.

Though bicyclists have the right-of-way, drivers are not always at fault for biking-related injuries.  Wearing a helmet reduces the odds of head injury by about 50 percent, and the odds of head, face, or neck injury by 33 percent, according to a 2017 research study by Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Because of her accident, Grago said that drivers in Orange need to abide by stop signs even if they don’t see cars and respect the speed limit, especially around campus.

“It’s almost a recipe for disaster when drivers are in a hurry and are distracted. I also think designated bike lanes around campus would definitely be helpful to avoid other accidents,” she said.

Burba said that bicyclists are responsible for following the law and protecting their own safety.

“Bicyclists have to follow the rules because cars aren’t aware of their presence at all times. There are reasons why those laws and rules exist. Both parties are usually at fault and could use more education to prevent accidents from happening,” he said.

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