Last October, Erika Wells took advantage of a beautiful fall day to ride her road bicycle in Indianapolis. The 38-year-old kindergarten teacher took part in triathlons and marathons and was an extremely experienced bicyclist. On this morning, however, a driver of a box truck swerved off of Ind. 37 and directly into Erika, ending her young life.
Sadly, as safe as Erika was, her proper bicycling behavior was no match for an apparently distracted driver.
She clearly knew which routes were safe and which ones to avoid. It didn’t matter. All it took was a swerving truck to cut short a vibrant life. The driver, who wasn’t drunk or otherwise disabled, was not charged.
Statistics on distracted driving are sobering. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2013 alone, 3,154 people were killed, and an additional 424,000 were injured in distracted-affected crashes. Texting alone has been attributed to 25 percent of all accidents in a given year.
Interestingly, as distracted driving goes up, drunken driving accidents and fatalities have been declining by as much as 25 percent since 2002. Campaigns against drunken driving have been the main reason for this success, and only now are we seeing such attention paid to distracted driving.
Another issue remains with enforcement and the penalties for distracted driving. To date, those caught drunken driving face far greater fines, including jail time in 42 states. Although distracted driving can be just as deadly as drunken driving, those fines are a fraction of fines attributable to DUI, and only two states — Utah and Alaska — put you in jail for the offense.
When bicyclists and pedestrians become involved, the result is usually deadly. A pedestrian hit by a car traveling at 40 mph has an 85 percent chance of being killed. Because distracted drivers usually don’t brake before an accident, this is sadly the norm. Common-sense rules include eliminating as many distractions as possible so drivers can focus on the roads.
As a planner for pedestrian and bicycle transportation, I am aware of many stories like Erika’s. We aim to create safe streets for bicyclists, install share-the-road signs and promote safe bicycling literature for both the bicyclist and motorized vehicle user. Then we sit and read about people like Erika, who obeyed all the rules, wore all the right equipment and yet was felled by human error.
However, in Erika’s memory, there is work to be done. Increasing fines and penalties for distracted drivers should be explored, and more advocacy is needed exposing the dangers posed by distraction. As for bicyclists, education also is needed to provide them with all the tips possible to avoid being a victim. This involves the right clothing and equipment but also avoiding the use of ear buds, obeying the road rules and having a good rear-view mirror.
Please remember Erika when bicycling and driving. Always keeping your focus on the road.
Mitch Barloga is nonmotorized transportation and greenways planner for the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission. The opinions are the writer’s.