Downtown a danger zone for Lincoln cyclists

Riding a bicycle may be green, but is it safe? In 2009, there were 129 bicycle accidents reported across the city, including 23 downtown alone.

“Biking in downtown Lincoln is dangerous,” said Katie Flood, the Lincoln Police Department public information officer.

Christopher McCammon, who teaches philosophy at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has been hit three times while riding his bike in the city so he knows too well how dangerous it can be. His first accident happened downtown about five years ago.

McCammon was cycling down 9th M St. on the sidewalk. As he coasted along, listening to the band Drive-By Trucker, a man drove out of a blind alley. McCammon couldn’t stop in time and rode into the side of the vehicle. He flipped over his handlebars onto the hood of the car and then slipped to the pavement on the driver’s side.

“The guy got out of the car and was wigging out,” he said. “I told him I was perfectly fine.”

McCammon walked away scratch-free and didn’t notify the police. He admits the accident was his fault because it is illegal to ride on the sidewalk in high-traffic areas, like downtown Lincoln.

Car-bike collisions are most common when a cyclist is on the sidewalk and entering an intersection or crosswalk. Bicyclists are supposed to dismount the bike and walk through a crosswalk instead of riding through it.

“I think people should know the bike laws,” McCammon said. “I would have been a lot more careful at intersections if I’d known the biking ordinances.”

Learn how to be a safe bicyclist in downtown Lincoln. Click the image below to see how to avoid car-bicycle accidents.

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In another of McCammon’s accidents, he was pulling his son Eben, then 2, in a wagon behind his bicycle around 28th Randolph. As they crossed the street, a teenage driver didn’t stop at the stop sign and plowed into McCammon. McCammon’s left leg hit the bumper, his right jabbed into the bike crossbar and he flew onto the hood of the car. He quickly got off of the car to check on Eben who was unharmed.

Later McCammon learned that the accident was partly his fault for riding into a crosswalk. Neither the driver nor McCammon were ticketed. McCammon went to the hospital for injuries to his legs. Today, McCammon still has a lump on his left leg.

“If I’d know how vulnerable cyclists are on the sidewalk I would have rode in the street,” McCammon said.

Many cyclists aren’t aware of biking ordinances, said UNL police officer Aaron Pembleton. Bicyclists are supposed to signal when turning, for instance, as well as stop at traffic lights and stop signs.

In April 2009, a bicyclist died when he ran a stop sign while intoxicated. While riding a bicycle drunk is not a crime, running a stop sign is. The rider, Myles Davis Jr., 46, collided with a Volkswagen Jetta at 23rd and Q streets.

Bicycle accidents accounted for 4.6 percent of all accidents in Lincoln in 2009, though the reported tallies may understate the problem. From Feb. 10 to March 31, a time when relatively few cyclists are on the roads, there were just 14 bike accidents in Lincoln. What’s more, not all accidents are reported. McCammon reported only one of his three accidents because he was hurt in that one.

In 2009, 106 of the 129 accidents resulted in injury.

Chistopher McCammon is being treated in the emergency room for contusions on his legs after being hit by a car while riding his bicycle. His son Eben, then 2, was also in the accident, but wasn't harmed. Photo courtesy of Christopher McCammon

Lincoln police spokeswoman Flood says the small number of incidents suggest that cycling is fairly safe, but she argues that is true only if riders operate their bikes safely. Even the downtown area can be safe “as long as cyclists observe the rules of the road and they make themselves visible and predictable,” she said.

Some bicyclists like McCammon, are concerned with the awkward placement of downtown Lincoln’s bicycle lanes. When Lincoln’s downtown was designed, bicycle lanes were not taken into consideration. So when the lanes were created, there was no room for them on the right side of the road.

“Lincoln does not appear as safe as other metropolitan areas that have placed an emphasis and importance on bicycling,” Flood said. “The bike lanes we do have alert motorists to take heed that bicycles are on the road and have a legal right to be there.”

Still, drivers and riders bump into one another too often. Cyclists and motorists, take heed.

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