Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A preventable and tragic death: Some Lessons

Sent to the Albuquerque Journal.

A preventable and tragic death: Some Lessons

On April 19, Suzanne LeBeau, an avid cyclist, was killed when she rode her bicycle into the path of the southbound Rail Runner train at the point where the Santa Fe Rail Trail crosses the tracks just south of Zia Road.

Commenters to a local TV outlet claim she was wearing some sort of headphones or earphones. This has not been confirmed by the ongoing police investigation.

Also relevant is that rail trail runs parallel to S. St. Francis at that location and approaches from behind the train station. A cyclist riding north will be screened by buildings and will then be looking at the sides of the lights and crossing arms in a large and busy intersection. The cyclist will also be looking directly towards the southbound train. Although the railroad barrier arms, safety lights, warning sirens and the train’s horn were all activated and working properly, readers must note that there are in fact no barriers or safety lights whatsoever at the actual rail trail crossing used by cyclists.
We will never know everything that happened on Saturday to cause this tragedy, as Suzanne is not here to explain it. My condolences go out to her family and to the train engineer, who was powerless to stop events.

Are there lessons here for cyclists, municipal planners, and facility designers? Certainly.

First, cyclists must maintain their situational awareness and anticipate hazards. We must constantly be asking "what can happen at this intersection or crossing and what will I do about it." Whether the cyclist was wearing headphones is less relevant than how a cyclist compensates for the loss of critical sensory information under potentially adverse conditions. Darkness, cold (requiring headgear), bad weather, and other  situations can compromise one's sensory safety envelope and require adjustment. Distracted riding can be perilous because it takes away the ability to sense and evaluate danger.

Secondly, the design standards for trails should be comparable to those for an immediately adjacent roadway—if there are barriers and lights for a busy roadway, why not for a key rail trail crossing at that very busy intersection?. Indeed, this is not just any trail but an important component in Santa Fe's offroad bicycle network, made necessary because many of its major roads (and especially St. Francis Drive) are decidedly bicyclist-unfriendly, thus requiring separate bicycle facilities. In this context, a cyclist should benefit from a warning light or barrier system similar to that enjoyed by motorists. A cyclist arriving via the Rail Trail is riding at right angles to the road’s barriers and warning lights. Is it possible that this reduced visibility coupled with background visual clutter did not provide the warning the designers had assumed?

Some of this discussion goes to the very heart of defining the roles of the cyclist and the government in maintaining roadway safety. We have to balance personal responsibility with an appropriate government role in building safe, well-engineered facilities. Let's reexamine these roles today and not let Suzanne LeBeau’s death be in vain.

Khalil J Spencer

League Cycling Instructor, League of American Bicyclists
Los Alamos, NM

Saturday, April 19, 2014

RailRunner 1, Situational Awareness 0?

Similar to R15-1, 
your basic rail crossing sign
Multiple news sources have reported that a cyclist was hit and killed while crossing the railroad tracks directly into the path of the 10:30 am. southbound Railrunner today at the Santa Fe Rail Trail where it crosses Zia a few feet west of  South St. Francis in Santa Fe (see map below). One commenter, who left a comment on the KRQE web site, stated "The young lady was zipping along with headphones on... She did not hear the train or the train's horn blowing. Please do not ride your bikes or run with head phones on... Be aware of your surroundings... This was a horrible accident."  The New Mexican cites unnamed witnesses who said much the same. Note added later. As of this afternoon, 4-22-2014, there is no evidence of headphones having been used.

I don't know much other than what's been reported and these uncorroborated comments, but it is never a good idea to leave the mental situational awareness switch turned off for any reason, electronic or otherwise, and leave mental distractions turned on. Way too much going on around a cyclist, especially in a city. There is some stuff out there marketed as safer for those who want to listen to tunes while riding, but I'm not sure I would buy into anything that would take my mind off the road. Live to the end of the ride and you can turn on those big 901's.

Some mistakes you only get to make once. This is tragic. Be careful out there.

The entities who designed this intersection/trail crossing don't get off scot free. The main road, Zia, is marked with flashing lights and gates. The bike path has Jacques Schitt--just a little white sign.  Tim Rogers, posting to the BikeABQ list, said "There are no gates here or at any other sidewalk or trail crossings.  These crossings are all adjacent to roads and it was decided that the bells & whistles were enough to warn pedestrians and cyclists without dedicated gates. Ugh."

Readers should also note that the cyclist was on a path that runs north-south, parallel to St. Francis until, at the last instant, it turns sharply right and crosses the tracks. I was told by a Journal reporter that she was headed north on this path and then made the sharp right across the tracks (see below). Therefore, it would seem a cyclist could not easily see the lights flashing until late in the approach to the tracks because the cyclist would be parallel to them rather than facing them, and contending with screening buildings as well. Still not sure how you miss the train, but there could be a lot of visual clutter there on a Saturday morning. I'll have to ride that myself, but looking at Google maps, that is what I would suspect. But based on my assumption of how the layout affects visibility, there is even more reason for a separate set of warning lights.

That double standard in design does not relieve cyclists from their obligation to pay attention and maintain situational awareness. Having said that, a city that prides itself on its trails as part of its Silver Bicycle Friendly City status, and which relies on trails because many of the major roads are pretty sketchy for cyclists, needs to make sure they are done right, even if it means spending a few bucks and twisting some arms at the NMDOT.

cyclist's intended route, south to north, as I understand it, 
shown with the black line. 
The Rail Trail jogs over the tracks just south of Zia, crosses Zia, and continues north.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Global Warming Deadly to Motorcyclists

Keeling Curve CO2 levels in ppm (NASA blog site) vs. 
NY Times reported MC deaths as % of total traffic deaths
It has long been known that elevated exposure to CO2 can cause headache, confusion, and lethargy. So it should not be surprising that elevated CO2 in the atmosphere could be leading to the higher percentages of motorcyclists being killed on our roadways, given their lack of protective "cages", i.e., a car chassis in the event of a mishap. Maybe our ideas of threshold levels of CO2 caused impairment have been too high.

Of course, there are other theories as to why motorcycle deaths are becoming more prevalent among total traffic deaths.  This morning (4/1/2014), the New York Times published a graphic in its Science section "Fewer Helmets, More Deaths" and attributed the rapid proportional rise of motorcycle fatalities in the last couple decades to the repeal of helmet laws. A CDC report is quoted, but no numbers are shown that supports that the lack of helmets led to the sharp rise in deaths, i.e., were these fatals primarily due to head injuries? Do the rise in fatals in states repealing helmet laws exceed, statistically, the rise in fatals in "control" states that still have helmet laws? On first glance, the rise in fatals in TX and Arkansas, two states that repealed, looked similar to the national average. Florida was higher.

Meanwhile, in 2010, Dr. Mark Gestring of the Univ. of Rochester Med School/Strong Memorial Hospital trauma center authored a journal article (March, 2010, American Surgeon) where they showed that the demographics of motorcycle crash injuries had changed, with a significant rise in motorcycle crash injuries or deaths in the cotere of middle-aged guys returning to motorcycling after a hiatus, i.e., "Old Guys Returning to Motorcycle Riding" population rather than the "young and fearless" riders who used to keep the meat wagons occupied. The authors suggest the rise in fatals and serious injury in older riders is due to two things, one, the prevalent crashes for the older rider were simple loss of control crashes, perhaps due to a loss of the fine motor skills and senses (seeing, hearing) these returning riders used to have when they were young thus making them more likely to crash (unless the rider consciously compensates for these skills losses), and two, the inability of the old rider to withstand the trauma of a crash that a young person could have withstood with good chances of recovery. Interestingly, the prevalence of helmet use was similar in both older and younger riders involved in crashes requiring hospitalization or the morgue.
Other things are changing as well. Cars and light trucks are constantly re-engineered to protect their occupants.  A motorcyclist is still his own air bag and crumple zone, although current motorcycles have better handling and brakes. OTOH, they have gotten huge and overpowered. Huge, overpowered motorcycles in the hands of older riders with diminished motor skills, poorer vision, and slower reflexes...hmmmm.

I emailed the NY Times asking if they would defend their position that this is all about helmets. One could just as easily plot motorcycle deaths vs. the Keeling Curve (i.e., the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere as measured at Mauna Loa Observatory) and claim a relationship.

We in the bicycling community often go through our own cycling arguments about correlation vs. causation, not to mention question begging, with topics such as helmets, safety in numbers, facility design, rider position vs. driver awareness, etc. One has to beware of plotting things and claiming cause and effect, i.e., begging the question rather than testing and disproving or finding scientific support for a hypothesis.  I'd love to see the numbers published supporting various great ideas we bat around in the advocacy movement(s).

Stay tuned
Khal Spencer
Member, Old Guys Returning to Motorcycle Riding
April 1st, 2014

Monday, March 31, 2014

Albuquerque Police Dept and Maslow's Hammer

 "I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail."  --Abraham Maslow
Justifiable shooting or execution squad? You decide. Journal Photo
On Sunday, there were protests  in Albuquerque, with police lobbing tear gas and angry and increasingly unruly crowds blocking streets and the Interstate near UNM and the Nob Hill area. All the result of festering anger over some 23 fatal shootings of civilians by APD officers over the last few years, culminating in the death of James Boyd, a mentally disturbed and occasionally violent homeless man camping out in the hills above the city.

According to a Journal poll, only 15% of those polled agree that the Boyd shooting was justified. The U.S. DOJ is investigating the constant shootings. Of course, reality is more complex than a yes vs. no poll, as Sunday's Journal article showed in describing the astonishing failures of the mental health laws and criminal justice system as well as the police department in bringing this man to his sad and untimely death.

Albuquerque has some pretty rough people in it and I am sure a lot of these 23 and counting fatal shootings were unavoidable.  We get the Albuquerque Journal and indeed it seems that many of the recipients of police-administered lead poisoning were armed, violent members of the Judicial Revolving Door Society, and often enough strung out on some sort of mind altering substance.  This case seems quite different, and completely unnecessary.

Rather than just heaping blame and scorn on the cops in that picture or on a recently installed police chief who rushed perhaps too soon to defend this outcome on shaky legalistic grounds, one has to ask what drives such outcomes. First, there is our inability to treat mental illness of the indigent short of involuntary confinement, resulting in a "throw them out and let God sort it out" reality.  Then there is the judicial revolving door, oftentimes even for serious crimes. Then there is the reliance on brute force, in part a long term development (see book link below) and at times seen as a requirement to facing the reality of a cop's violence-drenched job in some of our major cities.

Recent reports out of the Santa Fe New Mexican on recently proposed police academy training methods claim the curriculum refers to cops as "warriors" who should treat every traffic stop as a potential firefight with armed, cold-blooded people. This has me worried that we have escalated the use of force, adversarial thinking, and paramilitary tactics to levels not appropriate to a civil society. From the New Mexican, describing draft Police Academy training methods: "Officers involved in even routine traffic stops should “always assume that the violator and all the occupants in the vehicle are armed.”  “Most suspects are mentally prepared to react violently.”

Gee, does that include soccer moms and their kids or just members of minority groups with whom you are festering a prejudice? Think about that next time you are pulled over for a routine moving violation. "Excuse me, officer. I'm just reaching for my paperwork...yes, that's a flashlight in the glove box and a cell phone on my belt. Honest, man, I can't help it if I am young, male, and Hispanic."  I've asked Carol Clark of the Daily Post to get the full copy of the proposed curriculum, released under an Inspection of Public Records request, to see if reality is as grim as the New Mexican reports.

I wonder if there would be fewer police shootings of civilians in Albuquerque if the APD didn't rely on Maslow's Hammer.  Plus, it sure would be nice if we had a successful and legally defensible way to deal with folks like James Boyd short of a fusillade of live rounds from cops and the failure of a revolving door mental health/criminal justice system that routinely fails us all. This whole rotten system needs overhaul. But that includes a serious, unbiased legal investigation of the actions in that photo above. Actions have consequences.

Worth reading: "Rise of the Warrior Cops" by Radley Balco. Plus, let's be careful out there. All of us.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Old Guy Who Gets Fat in Winter Turns Sixty

The Cartoonist's Self-Portrait

Patrick O'Grady turned on his sixtieth lap around the sun a few days ago, no more worse for wear.  I broke that little mental barrier myself in January. All this proving once again that the good die young and the rest of us are left on this earth to cause trouble for others. There is quite the collection of old coots who follow the Mad Dog over at his site, proving once again that those self-propelled wheels are an excellent and very cheap health care plan.

I did sixty metric clicks in the wind yesterday in honor of yet another cyclist moving smoothly into late middle age/early geezerhood via the bicycle.

(Slightly Belated) Happy Birthday, Patrick!

Yer perennial pen-pal, Khal

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Where Is Bicycling in NMDOT's "Multimodal" Picture?

I can't find it.

Also, is "highway" a mode, or are we making highways synonymous with a departmental decision that anything other than a car or truck is irrelevant?

Does Secretary Tom Church, recognize that bicycling is transportation, and must be considered both within urban areas (traffic calming, etc) and on the open road (decent shoulders, good designs, no partial paving)? When the NMDOT is involved in highway designs that go through towns and cities, non-motorized modes must be accommodated. Right? The recent dust-up as to whether to build a bike-ped bridge on the I-25/Paseo del Norte construction in Albuquerque comes to mind as an example of where we are being treated as an option rather than a requirement and I don't see strong leadership on non-motorized modes either from the Duke City or State.

From the NMDOT web site:

About the New Mexico Department of Transportation

"Multimodal transportation choices invigorate the economy and connect people in small towns and cities and facilitate transportation of goods and people to other states and nations.

NMDOT focuses on the following modes of travel: transit, rail, aviation and highways. We've strengthened our commitment to traffic safety, environmental excellence, and complete planning, design and engineering services."

Rosa Kozub, Bicycle Pedestrian Equestrian Coordinator
Office: 505-476-3742505-476-3742
rosa dot kozub at state dot nm dot us