Friday, November 5, 2010

Two similar crashes. Two media reports. Can you spot the difference?

Crash # 1: Two vehicles collide on Mineral Point Road, one eastbound, and one westbound. Westbound vehicle operator turns left, failing to yield to eastbound vehicle operator.

Crash # 2: Two vehicles collide on University Ave, one eastbound, and one westbound. Westbound vehicle operator turns left, failing to yield to eastbound vehicle operator.

Can you spot the differences in the way the incidents were reported? Same reporter, although many times the newspaper reports are a verbatim repeat of the police reports, so it may not be the reporter's fault.

In crash # 1, ""He [westbound driver] apparently didn't realize a car was coming eastbound," DeSpain said. "The victim's car was hit and flipped over, landing on its roof."

In crash # 2, "As he [eastbound vehicle operator] went into the intersection, a 23-year-old man was making a left turn with his car from University Avenue onto Randall," said police spokesman Joel DeSpain. "The cyclist hit the car and landed on the pavement."

Hmmm, why is it that the report seems to imply that the bicyclist ran into a car, putting him possibly at fault, yet when two cars are involved, it is clear that the westbound driver failed to see the other vehicle, clearly making the turning driver at fault?

Also note that University Ave is actually not one-way in this location. It is a two-way roadway, but motorized traffic is only allowed westbound. Bicycles are legal vehicles in the state of Wisconsin, and therefore bicycles on University Ave, whether going eastbound or westbound, are "traffic.'

Now, before anyone jumps down my throat about a few more details, the bicyclist definitely violated the law in one way: he did not have a light. The crash occurred after dark, and despite the area being well lit, a headlight is not only required, but may have prevented this crash by making the bicyclist more visible. 

There is a green arrow for westbound traffic turning onto Randall, and the news report does not state whether the bicyclist was facing a green light or a red light when he went through the intersection. Certainly, if he ran a red, he was at fault legally for the crash. But we don't know, and I suppose that is why the "crash remains under investigation." 

Edit: Turns out the police report did indeed state that the bicyclist had a green light, which makes the indication that the bicyclist " hit the car" especially strange. 

Also, although there is no legal requirement to wear a helmet, and it is a personal decision, a helmet can help mitigate the consequences of a crash, in the same way that a seatbelt will mitigate the consequences of a crash if you are in a car. 

I am a big believer in helmets, since I have fallen or had crashes several times - nothing serious involving a car, by the way, always another bicyclist or my own fault and a fall - and have cracked one helmet along the way. I have had several friends involved in very serious crashes that walked away with bruises or even broken bones, but no head injury. I also wear my seatbelt all the time, and not just because my car won't stop beeping if I don't. 

When I talk about bike safety, people often bring up helmets. Just as seatbelts don't prevent a car crash, a helmet won't prevent a bike crash, but both can help you survive the crash or prevent serious injury. I'd rather prevent the crash in the first place, which is why I wish more people would both drive and bike safely, and know what they are doing when they both drive and bike. 

Very few real "accidents" occur n the road. An "accident" is something that is unforeseen and maybe not even preventable. The Wisconsin Dept of Transportation, Madison Police Dept, and increasingly most media outlets use the word "crash" when two vehicles collide, or a vehicle collides with a fixed object or person. 

Most of the time, someone - usually one or more or the vehicle operators - did something that caused the crash. That something could have been not paying attention, going too fast, drinking and driving, running a red light, or as in both these cases, failing to yield to another vehicle. 

40,000 people are killed by or in motor vehicles every year in the US. That is more than 10 times the number of people that died in the 9/11 attacks. Every year. Almost all of these deaths are preventable. If any other consumer product, and other activity, had this kind of safety record year after year, that product would be banned, or there would be federal investigations and media uproar.

Why do we let 40,000 people per year die every year, and still consider these "accidents?"


  1. I have been haunted by this post all day. We went through a left turn with our car. I thought, "If the bicyclist was coming down a hill straight toward me in the dark--no headlight -- and his/her brakes FAILED, then it is possible the bike would run right into my vehicle on the right side of it" From the post it is the corner of Randall & Old university - and I believe that the bicyclist wld be coming down a long gradual hil...this is a totally speculative note - not meant to correct, but to let you know I've been thinking about it. Thanks for writing about bike safety. I feel for the poor biker who hit the car.

  2. The reason we let 40K people die every year is there is a lot of money to be made marketing the "car lifestyle". Most people are unaware that, (as best as I can estimate), that only 11% of the world drives. 800M cars divided by 6.3B people.

  3. I'm not buying your purported cyclist bias in the reports. What would the crash #2 report have said if the eastbound vehicle was instead a car without its headlights on? Pretty sure the police would have ticketed that driver.

  4. @bluecheddar - you are a little off on the location... I went by the accident shortly after it happened (cyclist had already been taken away - police remained). It was on Randall, right next to the new Discovery Institutes building (between the two "one-way" sections of University). Not on Old University.