For what it’s worth

Today was the most perfect of days in Southern California. It began with a brisk and punchy pedal on the New Pier Ride, and after the ride we congregated at the Center of the Known Universe and enjoyed coffee … rehashes of the ride … and the joy that comes from soaking in the sun on a perfect August day just a few feet from the shimmering blue Pacific Oean.

When it came time for us to head in to work, we left the bricks reluctantly. The longer we dallied the less time we’d spend in the office, and then it would be Friday of Labor Day weekend, and nothing stops labor dead in its tracks like the Friday of a three-day weekend that exists solely to celebrate the ecstasy of not having to work.

I watched my buddies pedal off as they did their very worst to get into the office by ten.

She can’t see the sunshine now

On Tuesday afternoon Debra Deem was finishing up her workday much like we were starting out ours. She had recently retired from her high stress litigation job and was spending her retirement providing charitable legal services, and devoting herself to the gardens and plants she tended at her home.  Debra had been riding for more than twenty years and was an extremely safety-conscious cyclist. It was just her nature.

Very close to the same stretch of road where two women cyclists were hit and killed by motorists last year, and where a doctor was killed by a teenager in a runaway sports car, Debra was struck on August 27 by a minivan as she approached the intersection of Newport Coast Rd. while heading west on PCH. She died the following day.

I had gotten the news yesterday through Facebook, and though I didn’t know her, I couldn’t help feeling awful as the comments started coming in. Her husband Paul is a well-known cycling coach in Orange County, and has been a fixture in Southern California for decades. He raced the 4k team pursuit in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, and won the gold medal in that event in the 1975 Pan Am Games.

I kept thinking about Debra all the way to work, thinking about how one more bicycle rider in Southern California has been killed by another careless driver. And I hate to say the obvious, but it’s just not right.

What is “right”?

In the case of cyclists being killed by cagers, “right” means reducing the risk that slower moving bikes will be hit by inattentive or errant drivers. It is a fact that putting bicyclists in bike lanes or over on the shoulder increases their exposure to careless cagers. It is also a fact that putting bicyclists in the center of the lane decreases accidents.

The down side to this simple solution of “put bikes in the middle of the lane” is also simple: It requires drivers to slow down and pass, and the more cyclists there are on the road, the more it drivers will perceive their progress to be slow, even though the increase in riders means there are fewer cars on the road and there is therefore less congestion, not more.

This perception of being slowed down is everything, and in conjunction with putting cyclists into the middle of traffic, where they belong, we must also have major changes in the way drivers are taught to drive. This includes a meaningful section in driver education classes and on the licensing exam, but it also means continuing education in the form of sharrows, those “bike + arrow” markings that tell cagers and cops that bikes belong in the middle of the lane, not over in the gutter.

The bloody history of Newport Coast Drive

The intersection of PCH and NCD is horrifically dangerous for cyclists, because they have to leave the bike lane and merge with traffic into the right-hand turn lane in order to get onto NCD. Traffic is frequently going full-bore, and even in the best situations it’s dicey.

What’s so outrageous is that at least three people have died on NCD in the last year, and numerous others have been hit and injured. Cars race up the NCD grade so fast that the wind buffets bikes on the side of the road. On notice that the road is deadly, that the traffic mix for bikes and cars must be better controlled, and that drivers treat the open stretch like a testing ground for their sports cars, the city and county have done nothing.

This blind eye, this willful ignorance makes itself known by the absence of stepped up patrols, by no changes to the configurations of the roads and intersections, and by not even a willingness to let the ghost bikes stay in place as a reminder of the ghastly deaths and injuries that have occurred here.

A sharrow might have saved Debra’s life, some simple white striping that costs a few cents. What’s a human life worth? It’s surely worth that.

And when will the death count be enough, these numbers that are real people with real lives, these statistics that leave ragged, gaping, eternally bleeding, unfillable holes in the lives of those who are left behind?

How many will it take?

28 thoughts on “For what it’s worth”

  1. It amazes me how fast people take Newport Coast Dr. in their cars. Most of the supercars going up the climb are probably touching 80mph. Even with the bike lane on NCD, people still don’t pay attention. I was riding up the climb with my buddy, and he got sideswiped WHILE CLIMBING by a minivan doing 55mph. Exploded his side view mirror against my buddy’s elbow. Car kept going on, not even realizing that its mirror was nonexistent.

    A sharrow would be ideal, but there needs to be something that slows the cars down going northbound, as they come up a climb doing breakneck speeds into a separated turn lane, which crosses the path of cyclists who are turning onto the climb going south. Many a time I have had to brake for cars acting like racecar drivers through this turn lane. Death trap indeed.

    Thanks for bringing this to light, Wankmeister!

    1. NCD seems like a particularly egregious stretch that the city/county have zero excuse not to police and to modify so that cars don’t hit those speeds as a matter of daily driving practice.

      1. I was riding up Newport Coast, about 1 hour before this incident, and was thinking about the speed/safety factor as I passed the area where the prior hit and run claimed a life. Thinking, “such a wide road” . This news is terrible.

        It’s a 6 lane curving mini freeway only to serve the Irvine Co. master plan that was pitched as a ‘euro’ style enclave of hillside homes, but became another hill topping, money maximizing endeavor.

        Palos Verdes was developed early on in comparison, and the riders can value those wonderful hill roads. I do, but I gotta brave Anaheim St. to get there.

        1. Anecdotes have been pouring in about the danger of NCD, and how the city/county could care less.

      2. Yet, all the beauracrats & local politicians have immunity against all liability for willfully ignoring the negligent road design, don’t they?

        For “real”, “normal” people and businesses, selling an ordinary product that gets mis-used by a clueless consumer who then harms themselves, subjects the seller to potentially bankrupting lawsuits.

        1. You’d be amazed at how hard it is to tag a company with a products liability case these days …

  2. This is why I am finding myself riding in more urban areas (mid-city, downtown, etc.).

    1. Speeds are much slower and people don’t seem to mind having to slow down a bit to pass cyclists. Often times I find myself keeping up with the flow of traffic.
    2. People are a bit more alert since there are always jaywalkers and cars pulling out into traffic.
    3. People tend to drive faster and text more while driving in wealthier areas. I see this all the time in Malibu, PV, Beverly Hills, etc. I think they believe Range Rovers come with autopilot.

    I will be avoiding riding along the coast this weekend, because with the hot weather, the beach areas will be a total clusterfuck.

  3. Some of you will remember Adrienne and Frank Fowler, my cousins. They were killed in El Segundo in 1999 by an off-duty fireman who was, allegedly, a pot smoking HGH user who blacked out while driving. When it comes time in CA to vote to ‘decriminalize’ marijuana, please think about what it will mean to road riders. Here in WA, we now have accepted ‘legal’ limits for driving while stoned.

  4. ” … It is a fact that putting bicyclists in bike lanes or over on the shoulder increases their exposure to careless cagers. It is also a fact that putting bicyclists in the center of the lane decreases accidents. …

    I’ll take the lane when the road gets narrow due to road construction or whatever, but the cars are usually slowing down at the constriction, anyway.

    But I would be terrified to “take the lane” on, say, PCH thru Malibu. Images of getting rear-ended @ 55 mph by texting dickheads come to mind. If cagers will negligently sideswipe you, seems likely they will also negligently slam into you from behind, at those speeds.

    Am I wrong?

    1. I think you are, because in the middle of the lane the only person who’s going to hit you on PCH is someone who wants to kill you. I think there are fewer of those than there people who will swipe you in the gutter because they weren’t paying attention.

      However … I only “think” you’re wrong. It’s something that needs to be tested. And I’ve got an idea I plan to float here in the next couple of days about this exact stretch of roadway and the question you’ve posed.

  5. I ride up and down NCD often. I have noticed over the past 6 months that it is not just the drivers on NCD, but the drivers in the Newport area in general that are down right bicycle unfriendly. They honk, they swerve, race past you as close as they can on PCH, Jamboree, San Miguel, Eastbluff, Ford and more. Right of Way? Are you kidding? Want to make a left turn? They scream at you for being in the Turn Lane. These are not isolated instances, but I have experience at least one rude action every time I have ridden in the area. It’s so bad, that when a driver does act courteously, it’s noticeable.

    1. More cyclists + no cager education + being forced to ride in a bike lane/in the gutter = trouble.

  6. The insult added to injury about the Coast Highway running west (north in many of our minds) before Newport Coast Drive is there is no bike lane. That’s just road shoulder on the right, separated by a fog line that looks like a bike lane demarcation but includes no signage or associated maintenance and traffic enforcement. Newport Beach provides absolutely the bare minimum signage where they do maintain bike lanes anyway, and don’t enforce parking restrictions in the bike lanes, so it probably wouldn’t make a difference. But road shoulder is not maintained to riding standards. It’s full of trash, debris and broken glass. Crumbling or uneven pavement is not prioritized, because no one is supposed to be driving or riding there anyway. (Cyclists are allowed to use road shoulder in California, but are not required to.) And, as Wanker mentioned, the fog line follows the right side of the right turn pocket and leaves a hapless cyclist on the wrong side of that lane when she realizes she needs to merge across the lane to continue across the intersection. The same kind of death-trap, in my opinion, contributed to the events causing in the death of cyclist Sarah Leaf at Bayside and Coast Highway at the other end of Newport Beach a year ago. Here’s my description of that intersection:

  7. Back when I got to know my bike again (’03-4), I was spinning a house off Brookhurst in Huntington Beach…lots of remodeling. I road the coast, up and down, every day for about a year, before moving to Alpine. That stretch of PCH, and NCD in particular, are scary. And, the width and surface of the road fool us. It’s so wide and so smooth, but the cars think so too. I went on the weekend rides that start in Long Beach a bunch of times, and the tension in the bunch when coming back, on that section of road, was palpable. I had so many close calls that it made the decision to move out to the country easier, and I NEVER thought I would be susceptible to that kind of fear. But you know what, WM?…the drivers are what makes it so dangerous out on the road. They don’t seem to care, and the one’s that do can’t make a difference. Scary.

  8. I feel for you urban cyclist. I live in a very rural area in NE Oregon. Our roads are narrow with no shoulders and have a crappy surface. Lots of ranchers and cowboys who look at you funny with your cycling kit on. When I moved here I thought it was going to suck and I would be hit by a truck at some point. After ten years I have only had only two close calls and they were from out of state vehicles. These rural folks live life a bit slower and are extremely polite to cyclist on the roads. My conclusion it’s all about the attitude of the drivers. Be safe out on the roads my city friends.

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