Jul 212014

Owen Courreges

Keeping your eye on the road matters.  Sometimes it just prevents you from being a jerk, other times it can save somebody’s life.

Case in point: Earlier this past week I was going down Oak Street looking for a parking space on the street. When I saw one, I immediately hand signaled (my car is 63 years old and lacks turn signals) and slowed next to the spot. A white SUV was approaching behind me from the intersection, so I held the hand-signal for a few seconds, believing that the SUV would see the signal and leave me sufficient space.

Alas, the SUV did not. It advanced right up on my bumper as I grabbed the wheel to turn into the space. Annoyed, I gestured with my hand for the SUV to back up. The SUV complied and I parked, thinking the trivial matter behind me.

Ah, but that would be too easy. The driver of the SUV, a middle-aged woman with a small child in the passenger seat, pulled up alongside me, began berating me for not using my “blinker,” ignored my replies about the hand signal and then drove off, continuing to mutter some asinine garbage about my obligation to use my “blinker.”

This was a stupid encounter. If the woman had simply been looking at the road ahead of her as she proceeded forward, she would have seen my hand signal and realized that I was trying to park.

Admittedly, the stakes there were pretty low, but they aren’t always low. Just this past Thursday on St. Claude Avenue, a bicyclist was struck and killed by a commercial truck that was turning onto Elysian Fields.  The cyclist was proceeding straight in a bike lane sandwiched uncomfortably between two right turn lanes; one designated for normal vehicles, the other for large trucks.

“The truck driver DID NOT check for cyclists, pedestrians, or other traffic and made a right turn,” reported Victor Pizarro, a witness to the collision. “I was behind the truck and saw everything.“

Because the cyclist was in the bike lane, he had right of way.  There’s no question about that.  There’s even a sign posted warning right-turning motorists to yield to bicycles.  Thus, the burden was on the truck to be aware of bicycle traffic and yield appropriately.  Apparently, he failed to detect the cyclist’s presence and turned right into him.

Nevertheless, in the wake of this accident I’ve heard many knee-jerk reactions against the cyclist.  On Nola.com, we were treated to some very truncated analysis.  “The cyclist was passing a truck on the right as the truck was making a right hand turn?  Darwin wins,” said one commenter.

Others went a bit too far in the other direction.  “18 wheelers are death machines spreading tragedy,” said another one of Nola.com’s finest.

The truth was somewhere in the middle.  The truck driver was clearly at fault insofar as he lacked right of way, but unless he was drunk or under the influence of drugs, it was a case of failure to yield – ordinary, run-of-the-mill negligence.  The consequences were serious, but the crime was not.

Of course, the biggest culprit was neither the truck driver nor the cyclist, but the city.  It was, after all, the city that decided to situate a bike lane between a right turn lane for normal traffic and another turn lane for large trucks.  As matters stand, bicycles are proceeding between a rock and hard place, and in this analogy, the “rock” may smack them dead.

Instead, the city could have opted to locate the bike lane on another street not designed for heavy trucks, or it could have redesigned the turn lanes, or it could have put the bike lane on the left side (a technique that is gaining popularity).  It’s clear to me they chose the worst possible configuration for cyclists.

In the end, however, that’s a broader issue.  The brass tacks are that a trucker didn’t see a cyclist, and as a result the cyclist died.  Cyclists are more vulnerable than other people on the road, and as a consequence, they merit special attention both from motorists and the city.

We shouldn’t get beyond that simple notion.  It’s the fundamental issue here, and in the end, that’s the one we need to address.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

  27 Responses to “Owen Courreges: Keep your eyes on the road — lives depend on it”

  1. “Because the cyclist was in the bike lane, he had right of way. There’s no question about that. There’s even a sign posted warning right-turning motorists to yield to bicycles. Thus, the burden was on the truck to be aware of bicycle traffic and yield appropriately. Apparently, he failed to detect the cyclist’s presence and turned right into him.”

    Some have even argued that since the bike lane ended just before the actual intersection, so the truck automatically had right of way and had no obligation to yield to bikes. The fact that there is a bike lane on the street is totally irrelevant. Bicycles have the right by law to be there. They are required to ride as far to the right hand side of the roadway as practicable. Vehicles are required to give 3ft of space to bicycles when passing and must yield to bicycles when taking right turns.

    Whenever there is a bicycle accident, the conversation always devolves into the same tired complaints from drivers who never venture outside of their vehicle: Bicycles running red lights, not paying gas taxes, going the wrong way, not wearing helmets, etc. Well, this particular person on the bicycle was doing everything right. The truck driver was clearly in the wrong. He was not cited or arrested and faces zero consequences. That is the problem.

    I don’t quite remember how many drivers and pedestrians were killed by bicycles in New Orleans last year, but I’m pretty sure it was zero.

    • Ideas like “right of way” and “bike lanes” mean nothing when few drivers (both vehicles and bikes) follow no rules, whatsoever. In a perfect world bikers would always travel on the extreme right and go WITH traffic, not the other way around. How many times have you seen bikes traveling in the wrong direction or cutting out in front of cabs, private vehicles or zooming through pedestrians? AND, forget directional signals by drivers! Unenforced traffic laws or simple common sense result in many near tragedies and deaths. The recent death of a biker is but one example of “safety LAST” attitude in New Orleans. Selfish and oblivious drivers will never learn to be careful of others until they are ticketed (HA!) for their flaunting of the rules of the road. Probably THE most dangerous vehicles on the streets are the many buggies that NEVER pull over for other traffic, thereby causing drivers to lose patience and take chances against their better judgement (if that exists). The only time you see any real “traffic control” is when some rich tourists pay for a private “second line” with police motorcycle escorts.

    • RRod3,

      I’ve heard those arguments as well. They are unavailing because: 1) The bike lane itself had arrows near the intersection indicating that bikes were clear to proceed forward; 2) the cyclist was struck just before the corner where the bike lane was still present; and, 3) there was a sign telling turning vehicles to yield to bicycles. I don’t see how you get around those.

      I disagree that the presence of a bike lane is an irrelevant factor, though — without the bike lane there would be more of a question regarding how the vehicles were positioned, which vehicle was passing, etc., instead of a simple application of the bike lane law pertaining to right of way.

      For this reason, I agree that it’s odd that the driver wasn’t cited. Somebody else told me that perhaps it’s department policy to complete a longer investigation before bringing charges in the case of fatal accidents. I hope that’s the case, because otherwise it looks like the NOPD completely dropped the ball.

  2. I just returned from San Francisco where on many streets they have the bike lanes next to the curb, and the parking lane on the traffic side. Helps to protect the bikers. Hmmmm, with all the recent changes for the better here in Nola, maybe they could start doing that on our streets. Just a thought.

    • They have those in NYC as well. They work because every intersection that the lane crosses is signalized. Cars cannot turn right on red and they are required to yield to bikes and pedestrians when turning right. In the Netherlands, they do use this type of bike lane at unsignalized intersections, but their street and sidewalk infrastructure is set up very differently and have much more protective laws concerning bikes and pedestrians. There is usually a raised, continuous sidewalk that crosses the side street and that side street does not continue across the main street. Cars are required to navigate up and over the sidewalk to enter the side street yielding to all other users in the process.

      That wouldn’t work so well on St. Claude because every block is an unsignalized/stop sign intersection which would be a recipe for disaster since bikes traversing the intersection are now hidden by cars making it even more dangerous for all users. Pedestrians and bicycles would be even harder to see. Since there are no raised sidewalks, (and apparently no penalty for hitting a bicycle or pedestrian), drivers would be free to quickly roll through the pedestrian and bicycle crossings to get to the main street.

  3. When parallel parking, my turn signal switches itself off thinking I have completed a forward turn, though I’m backing. So it means I have to physically hold the blinker-lever in position with my left hand while maneuvering only with the right. Of course the simple answer is for the folks who are driving behind us to be cautious and keep back a car length, as it should be obvious to them that something is afoot.

    That bicyclist on St. Claude was doing nothing more that traveling straight in the proper lane, and the truck had a yield sign. I do believe that 18-wheelers often assume everyone in their path will see them and will get out of the way regardless of road rules. However I also wonder how much it is possible for a truck to see back into that bike lane, given the standard blind spot problem? The city intersection design should take these dangers into account.

    • TravelAR,

      Just curious when parallel parking, do you pull first into the bike lane and then into the parking spot / use the bike lane as prep space for entering and exiting your parking space?

      Most people seem to do this, which is of course yet another of the many reasons bike lanes should be to the left of the travel lane adjacent the neutral ground rather than sandwiched between the numerous danger zones to the right.

  4. I drove a car or used a bicycle in Manhattan for almost 30 years, In all kinds of weather and day or night. There was only ONE incident in which I was injured while biking. A kid opened a car door on the street side and I was sent flying, braking a finger and dislocating a shoulder. The kid was definitely in the wrong: it is against the law to exit a car on the street side. I did nothing about the incident at the time.
    Many years later, as I returned to New Orleans, I began to see that driving was a completely different kind of situation from New York.
    Directional signals (blinkers to you, Owen) were almost never used and I was fearful every time I took to the city streets. With the introduction of cell phones the danger was multiplied ten-fold. Drivers were always on their phones and completely ignored their surroundings, especially pedestrians and people on bicycles. More observations concerning bicycles told me that my biking days were over, especially in New Orleans. Old age had diminished my ability to react with split-second timing to avoid being injured or worse.
    I soon came to the conclusion that either there were NO traffic laws or that no one was observing them. Probably both.
    There are more bikers in New Orleans than there are people, as anyone who gets around the city can plainly see. Bike rentals are on the rise with tourists being the norm. The rest are usually hard working individuals whose only means of getting to and from work is a bicycle. God bless ’em, but, for me, no thanks!

  5. Owen, thank you for mentioning left-hand bike lanes!

    It should be pointed out first and foremost, that had the city placed the bike lanes on Elysian and St. Claude on the left where they belong, Mr. Geck would have never been put in danger, he would have never been made to compete with turning trucks, and he would be alive today.

    I have been battling with the city for well over 3 years trying to get them to even consider putting left-hand (neutral ground adjacent) bike lanes on divided streets here in New Orleans.

    There are dozens of studies including the official recommendations of the Federal Highway Administration which show that left-hand bike lanes on divided roadways are by far the safest placement for cyclists, pedestrians, and motorists alike.

    Left-hand lanes (or on busy roadways without a neutral ground, protected centre cycle lanes) place bike traffic in a position that presents very little chance of competing with cars or with impeding traffic flows for motor vehicles.

    They prevent the many problems that come with the city’s preferred right-hand lane placement. Cyclists no longer have to compete with cars entering or exiting parking spaces, they no longer have to worry about a car door suddenly being opened into the bike lane, they don’t have to worry about being cut off by right-turning vehicles exiting the roadway, and they don’t have to deal with the bike lane being blocked by taxis, delivery vehicles, and especially cars hoping to turn right from a cross street into the traffic flow who are forced to pull far past the stop sign to see around the lines of parked cars and bike lanes between them and the travel lane.

    When you look at how drivers, even good drivers, drive there are several realities that make right-hand lanes a virtual death sentence for cyclists.

    For one, drivers generally don’t look to their right or to their rear before making a right turn; they only look in front of their cars to ensure no one is stopping, and at best check their rear-view mirror to ensure their car won’t be rear-ended by another motorist driving too close.

    Second, right-hand lanes make parked cars, parking and unparking cars, and cyclists all compete for the same space which creates a major danger for cyclists and presents a solid unnecessary risk of damage and injury to car owners who may not see a cyclist coming before opening their door.

    Third, in the hopefully unlikely but all too frequent event that some circumstances beyond the cyclist’s control require him to crash to avoid being hit, the only available options are to either crash into the adjacent travel lane and hope not to be run over by 4 tons of metal driving 25-35 mph faster than him; or, plow head on into one of the many stationary 4 ton obstacles parked to his right. The result either way is likely injury, and potential death.

    Whereas drivers rarely look right before turning right, they almost always look left before turning left! This is especially true here in New Orleans where drivers are trained to check the neutral ground for street cars or other vehicles occupying the desired turning lane or cross-over.

    Thus, if cyclists are given the left-hand side of the roadway adjacent the neutral ground, they ride in a position that drivers are already inherently aware of and cautious about interacting with and most importantly in which turning across the bike lane would already come with slowing and looking for competing traffic simply due to the nature of our local divided streets. In addition to protecting cyclists from right-turning vehicles, left-hand lanes provide a much better alternative to right-hand lanes in a crash situation in that the cyclist now has a third option of crashing into the soft grass and bushes of the neutral ground to his left; certainly it’s still not something anyone on a bike wants to do, but if given the choice between crashing into greenery and crashing into or being run over by cars or trucks, it’s certainly one most would take.

    Simply put, smart cities put their bike lanes where they belong — in the centre of the roadway and to the left of drivers.

    Photos below show properly designed roadways in Washington DC, Naples, Florida (2), France, Portland, Oregon, and Olympia, Washington.

    Please contact your city council representatives and demand LEFT-HAND bike lanes. They’re FREE! And, they save lives!

  6. This is just a thought but maybe the city should run a public service announcement via television, newspapers, and radio explaining the laws concerning cyclists. Its been a pretty long time since I have taken a driver’s ed class so the review would be helpful.

    • Jill,

      They did the 610 Stomper campaign recently regarding pedestrians and cyclists, highlighting the 3 foot rule. Perhaps they need to do an additional PSA about bike lanes and yielding to cyclists on the right when turning.

  7. I find that turn signals are noticed by other drivers. They see you are trying to merge, turn, park etc… and they speed up or cut you off and try to block you from your intended direction. I’ve learned not to use mine so I can merge or change lanes without other drivers trying to crowd me out.

    As for the bike lanes in this town, they are woefully inadequate. They merely throw some paint down as a token gesture. There’s no planning or safety study. The best is the picture of the bike with an arrow and no actual lane, as if drivers never before assumed there might be a bike on the road.

    The problem is no traffic study/analysis/engineering to the hap-hazard layout of New Orleans roadways and intersections combined with almost zero enforcement of traffic laws. Everyone out there on a bike, cycle , or car has to be on their toes, watch out and assume every other diver is a complete drunken maniac.

    • “…and they speed up or cut you off and try to block you from your intended direction.”

      Absolutely! This seems to be a New Orleans behaviour as I’ve not really encountered it to any noticeable extent elsewhere.

      The other problem with turn signals here is that those who do use them fail to understand that they’re meant to warn others what you WILL do and not what you ARE doing!

      People here somehow manage to hit their turn signal level with their hand AS they’re turning the wheel. They don’t put it on before hand, and they certainly don’t follow the 200 feet in advance rule as the law requires in Louisiana. Instead, the put it on as part of the turning process itself, seemingly using it to justify whatever they’ve just done to everyone else on the road.

      I agree with above. I think everyone should have to complete a mandatory driver’s ed or review course every year and that anyone on the roads in New Orleans, regardless of where their license is from, cyclists, pedestrians, and drivers alike, should have to take a test each year to verify they understand the laws.

      • Drew,

        We’re going to part company on this. First of all, forcing people to pay for and take a class isn’t likely to change driving behavior. People generally know the rules but they often just don’t follow them. Secondly, it’s just too onerous. We don’t have the resources to enforce such a law, and residents have their own problems and don’t need more on their plate.

        Furthermore, imposing a testing requirements for pedestrians would be stuck by the courts faster than you can say “you have a right to walk around without a government license.”

  8. Owen,

    Are you going to write anything about the hate group that Landrieu is apparently a huge fan of?

    • SPLC,

      Eh, Landrieu is now saying that the proclamation was issued in error. I’m willing to accept the notion that the proclamation was entered rotely and was never intended as an endorsement.

      In any event, these guys seem like the socially-conservative equivalent of PETA; their protests are so over-the-top and offensive that anything they do is counter-productive.They’re trolling the city and I don’t want to feed trolls.

  9. The death of the bicyclist is tragic. Your parking problems are much ado about nothing.

    • Mike,

      That was the point. I wanted to show how not paying attention in traffic has consequences, some of which are fairly trivial, and others that leave somebody dead in the street. If you don’t maintain a lookout and all you do is yell at another driver for your own mistake, you’re lucky. You could have just as easily have run somebody down.

  10. “The experts are the enemy”…

    Biked for 12 years pre- Katrina from Turo B. to CBD, and learned where NOT to ride. Also witnessed a tragic death of a biker, he was ridding on Camp next to an 18 wheeler- I was traveling the same speed, the same direction on Coliseum all by myself and saw the entire thing. SEE MAP https://www.google.com/maps/@29.939513,-90.072398,3a,75y,90t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1sEqQn4NT1sPXWpapQoyKyDg!2e0

    Thanks to experts, there are Bike Lanes on Freret and other busy streets thought up on half baked Dr. Flakey bike rides by kumbyonic fools. They bring new meaning to “tourist trap”- especially while texting. Sorry to be bitter as I’m pro bike, it’s STUPID TO RIDE 9or to encourage any) ON HEAVILY TRAFFICKED STREETS when alternate safer side streets run parallel. Yes- St. Charles Ave. and others are wider and safer with extra traffic + the new Nashville Ave. layout is ok (it’s one lane up to that point anyway), but only the “bikers rights bro, dude…” are dumb enough to ride on Magazine or Freret (unless it’s after 11pm and before 7:15 mon-sat and 9am sun).
    My non “Expert” solution; give me a slowly dripping 5 gallon bucket of paint off the back of a pick up truck, and I’ll make safe routes…
    JK… what would work are car only 4 way stop intersection (bikes don’t stop, but cars must) on safer repaved side streets…

    • Brott,

      Man, are you ever right about this. It would be far better for absolutely everyone to repave parallel one-way side-streets and designate those as bike routes than install bike lanes on every major street. Alas, the city doesn’t want to repave anything other than major streets, so we get the horrible and dangerous situation we have now.

      • Side street are safe streets, and Chestnut still has old signage from when it was a designated “Bike Route” Now? I hand out the ice packs, but also share the cctv evidence to drivers when blamed by bikers rights idiots stupid enough to ride on Freret after they crash and point broken fingers “bro”…
        Sorry, mr dude- you have every right to text while biking in flip flops on your thousand dollar single speed too delicate to ride on a normal NOLA Street, but I’m going to call you what you are; a stupid hippy hipster high from huffing on your street art fumes…
        As to solutions-
        1- Sorry in advance to some of Bike NOLA and others hard work http://usa.streetsblog.org/2012/10/22/study-protected-bike-lanes-reduce-injury-risk-up-to-90-percent/ , but NO turns 300 soon, as does the blood sugar of many of our drivers… We are NOT like other places, get all we can off the death traps and onto our safe routes- Where are they? TALK TO COMMUTERS, and count riders on thier routes in rush hour am/pm To those who bitch those routes are too bumpy, change to a mountain bike 1.5″ wide slick tires- some go up to 100 lbs and are FAST!!!

        2. Will need to get get creative with http://mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov/htm/2009/part2/part2b.htm (?) but side street safe routs- get repaved- with parking limited to one side.
        2 way bike traffic allowed.
        And intersections redone where cars stop and yield to that rarely have to. See Photo.
        3. Issue bonds and get it done ASAP to attract triathlon demographics, not hate groups and get a ROI with long term health care costs as more locals will ride when smooth and safe.
        Have more, but that’s enough for now…
        Best From Freret St.
        Andy Brott

  11. In a perfect world, the extreme right of the road would always be “usable”. Unfortunately, the roads’ edge is sometimes blocked by low hanging tree branches, and shrubbery. Also, there are more potholes along the edges of roads, as water soaks the ground and seeps under the asphalt. Water then freezes (in the winter months), expands, and causes “frost heave”. So there are definitely more potholes at the edge of the road.

    The Cyclist should ride in the middle of the road, and the motorist should be expected to slow down or stop , until there is a place for the cyclist to pull over… The Law once required cyclists to ride “as far right as possible”, but , in order for that to work, the motorist would have to drive as far Left as-possible, wouldn’t it?

    The Real Issue: Bicycles need Rear-View Mirrors. Now, if a Law is passed , requiring Rear View Mirrors on bicycles , that law would be an “Unfunded Mandate”, as NO money has been put aside to pay for the Bicycular Rear View Mirrors.
    While your at the Bike Shop, you might want to pick up a set of Directional Blinkers for the Bicycle. These things need Money, to be invested in the Bicycle Factories, before they can appear on the roads.

    So the Bicycle is going down the middle of the road, and a motor vehicle appears in the Rear View Mirror. Now the Cyclist can SEE the car truck or SUV, and will move over, as soon as a patch of *unbroken* pavement becomes available.

    But the trouble is with the Banks. The Big Banks refuse to lend money to the Bicycle Industry. That’s why there are NO Mirrors, No Blinkers, and No Ladies Bikes that can stand the weight of a rider over 125 pounds. The Banks refuse to loan the money.

    A Ladies Bike, by the way, is the kind with a lower bar, so it is easy to step off of. Compared to a Mens Bike, which traps the riders’ leg, making it impossible to Dis-mount, and basically Crucifies the Cyclist on-the-spot. +

    (I made the sign of the cross for you there).

    Anyway, there might be a new and improved Rear-View-Mirror available, but it was funded with private money. Keep looking and let me know if there are any Blinkers (with LED lights?) at any Bike Shop near you. You could start a petition , and have your congressman pass a law to require Blinkers on Bicycles, but it will be an Unfunded Mandate- the Banks WON’T loan the money to the Bicycle Industry. Keep trying those “hand signals”.

    • James,

      >>The Cyclist should ride in the middle of the road…<<

      Absolutely not. The law still provides that bikes should ride as far to the right as practicable except in response to specific hazards. That's what the law saws, and no amount of interpreting can turn "right" into "middle."

      I agree that the far right side of the road is often chewed up and cyclists will have to ease over to the left to avoid various hazards, but as a matter of course, bikes are supposed to keep right. It's not only the law, it helps promote the free flow of traffic.

      • Wait a minute; what I’m saying is, the Cyclist needs to keep a constant watch on the rear view mirror, and “move over” whenever a car approaches.
        Also, the Cyclist has the best chance of being seen, if he is one the middle of the lane. (I meant middle of the “Lane”) .

        For the ” Far Right as Possible ” thing to work, there needs to be a provision in the Law that requires the Motorist to move ” as Far LEFT as Possible”.

        There is a clear and pressing issue as to whether the Cyclist should use the Road SHOULDER. If there IS a Shoulder, and it’s reasonable free of potholes and pavement defects, then YES, the Cyclist should definitely use the road Shoulder. However: there are many roads, or stretches of road, which either have a narrow road shoulder (under 25 inches in width) or NO Shoulder at all.

        Under extreme circumstances, when there is NO room at all for the car to pass the bicycle safely, the cyclist will have to do Eight things: 1) STOP, 2) Dismount , 3) Lift the Bike UP and 4)carry it off the road. 5) WAIT for the Car to pass, along with any cars that were backed up behind the first car. 6) Wait a while longer, until rush-hour is over, 7) Look for a break in traffic, and 8) When the road is clear, the cyclist may continue driving his Bicycle, ( Garden Tractor, Skateboard, Pushcart, Moped, Wheelbarrow, or Shopping Cart, etc.)

        I will stand by my statement, on the basis that I am constantly watching my Rear View Mirror, and I Move Over whenever necessary. The middle of the Rightmost Lane is the best place to ride, when there is No Shoulder, Both for my ability to see cars in my mirror, and the ability for motorists to see me.

  12. i still don’t understand why the driver was not ticketed.

  13. James,

    >>[W]hat I’m saying is, the Cyclist needs to keep a constant watch on the rear view mirror, and “move over” whenever a car approaches.<<

    Ok, that's much more reasonable than what I thought you were saying. It's not strictly what the law says, but it's all the same with respect to traffic flow.

  14. Sorry it’s us and NOT the driver at fault as we allowed less experienced
    NOLA cyclists, and out of town “experts” to set policy and install these death traps and to encourage foolish mixes of with heavily traffic and City Buses now pushed into narrowed roadways with corner bump outs.
    The horrible tragedies that claimed Phillip Geck and Lucas Cox (also killed while riding by an 18 wheeler on Camp Street in 2002) would not have happened if they rode on safe streets without 18 wheeled trucks.
    NOLA is NOT Seattle, Portland, or Minneapolis; our streets are bad, our drivers suck, and we text and drive well below average. Not to mention our drunken drivers fools, and lack of Public Transit. Lets shift policy back- to bike forward safe – and get folks off Magazine Street and back on Chestnut Street.
    Best from 5110 Freret,
    Andy Brott

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