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Vehicle, Bicycle Collisions Up in Fairfax County

Officials hopeful bicycle master plan will make roads safer for Fairfax County cyclists.

Accidents between vehicles and bicycles in Fairfax County are happening more frequently this year — the latest claiming the life of a Falls Church woman.

There have been 54 collisions between vehicles and bicycles this year with one fatality, up from 44 accidents between bicyclists and vehicles with no fatalities in 2011.

On Nov. 12, Elizabeth P. Shattuck, 58, of Falls Church, was hit by a pickup truck while she was walking from the north to south side of Columbia Pike. Police pronounced her dead at the scene, marking the first Fairfax County death resulting from a bicycle versus vehicle accident in two years. The accident is still under investigation, and charges have yet to be filed.

Greg Billing, a spokesman for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, said there are an increasing number of people taking to the roads on bicycles across the region.

“We’re definitely seeing an increase in crashes between vehicles and cyclists as more people are getting into cycling,” Billing said. “Enforcement is a huge issue across the region and there are a lot of motorists out there that are distracted and speeding and don’t see the cyclists on the roads.”

The upward trend began around 2010, a year that in Fairfax County brought 49 collisions between cyclists and vehicles with four fatalities.

Throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia, there were 621 collisions between vehicles and cyclists with 12 fatalities in 2010. In 2011, those numbers rose to 730 collisions with six fatalities, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 52,000 cyclists injured in collisions involving vehicles in 2010. They resulted in 618 fatalities.

Making Roads Safer for Cyclists

Fairfax County is trying to make it safer for cyclists to travel along the roads by developing a countywide bicycle master plan. According to the phase one report of the project, one of the county’s goals is to make bicycle travel a viable transportation choice. To accomplish that, according to the report, Fairfax County must achieve a bike parking rate of 80 percent capacity at the four Tysons Corner stations within six months of opening the Silver Line. By 2014, the plan charges the county with doubling the bicycle commuting rates to Tysons Corner.

Charlie Strunk, bicycle program coordinator for Fairfax County, said his division is wrapping up its research and data for another presentation to the county’s Planning Commission in the first quarter of 2013. Strunk said the master plan will include educational components for cyclists and motorists, policy recommendations and the expansion of the county’s infrastructure to add bike lanes and trails.

“This plan is data intensive,” Strunk said. “Policy and infrastructure are the two biggest areas of the master plan.”

Since the Virginia Department of Transportation is responsible for the roadways in Fairfax County, it sets the criteria that determines whether a bike lane can be added to a road.

Cindy Engelhart, VDOT’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, said the location of bike lanes is determined by proximity to high-density housing and employment centers. She said routes between those areas would need to have a demand or need for a bike lane.

The cost of a traffic study to install bike lanes varies depending on how much work has to be done, she said. The cost for VDOT to install bike lanes is between $217,600 and $719,100 per mile.

“This is determined by evaluating how fast the speed limit is and how much volume of traffic currently uses the road,” Engelhart said. “Low speed roads like neighborhood roads do not need a special bike lane. On those types since the speed is low and the number of cars are low, so bicycles can blend with the traffic using the regular lane without any special design.  Other road types may already have a wide shoulder which can be used instead by bicyclists so a bike lane is not needed.”  

Until then, Billing said enforcement of traffic laws to protect cyclists is a must. But cyclists need to be more proactive and wear reflective gear and make sure their cycles have lights and reflectors, he said.

Statistics for Vienna

So far in 2012, car vs. bicycle accidents are down from last year. In 2011, four incidents occurred; reports show two in 2012, according to the Vienna Police Department.

"The Vienna Police Department has stressed for several years the Eye to Eye Campaign, which encourages bicyclists to make eye contact with motorists prior to attempting to traverse any intersections including those intersecting with the W&OD Trail," Officer Gary Lose, a spokesperson for Vienna Police, said in an email to Vienna Patch. "Bicyclists are also reminded that they must obey the same traffic laws as a motor vehicle, i.e. stop at all stop signs, traffic lights."

According to Virginia law, bicycles are required to ride as closely to the right curb as possible when driving in the same roadway has vehicles. The following exceptions are permitted:

  • Overtaking or passing a vehicle that is slowing or stopped.
  • Preparing to make a left turn.
  • Something in the roadway that is obstructing the path which makes traveling as close as possible to the right curb unsafe.
  • There is not enough room for a bicyclist and a vehicle to travel in the same lane, going the same direction.  
Wien November 28, 2012 at 02:02 PM
I'd be interested in seeing the rise in bicycle usage compared to the rise in collisions, to see if there's any relation between the two. At least in my part of Vienna, and along the W&OD daily, I'm seeing more bicycle usage this year. It's a positive sign that the Vienna collision numbers are down; I think on the whole, most folks in Vienna (including the W&OD) have responded well to the new lanes, additional signs, and enhancements to intersection visibility. But it can still be scary out there as a biker (or runner), especially as the days get short and visibility decreases around 4:00pm. Whether running or biking, it's critical to wear something to increase visibility around that time. Sadly, it sounds like the fatality listed above was doing everything right. She wasn't riding aggressively or dangerously, she was actually dismounted and walking across the street when struck. Goes to show that not every bike accident is someone "blowing through a stop sign" or the anti-cycling complaint du jour. More frightening is the increase in read-end collisions (with cars striking a bike from behind) that is on the rise in the US and has always made up a majority of significant bike crashes (including some US pros in Colorado this year). Shows that it's not just bike awareness, but also car awareness, that needs to be examined. Bike lanes are a good start to prevent these collisions, but as seen in Vienna, oftentimes these lanes are full of leaves waiting for collection.
TWDC November 28, 2012 at 03:29 PM
Slight clarification: Virginia law doesn't state that cyclists must "ride as closely to the right curb as possible." It says cyclists "shall ride as close as safely practicable to the right curb or edge of the roadway (§ 46.2-905)." "As safely practicable" and "as possible" look a lot different, particularly from a cyclist's perspective.

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