Road Cycling

Utah road fatalities: Is it time to get serious about road safety? – Deseret News

In the span of just one hour, three people were hit and killed by vehicles Tuesday along the Wasatch Front.

At 10:45 a.m. in Sandy, police said aU.S. Postal Service truck struck a five 5-year-old girl, killing her. Images from the scene show a children’s scooter lodged underneath the vehicle’s tire.

At 11:26 a.m., Salt Lake City police were notified about a crash involving two people — a driver “left the roadway,” hit a woman and her child, then fled the scene, according to the initial investigation. The woman died on the way to the hospital, the child is in critical condition and the driver is in custody, police said. It marked the 11th traffic-related fatality in Salt Lake City this year.

At 11:31 a.m., police in Spanish Fork received a call about a collision involving a semitruck and bicycle. Police say the cyclist “ran into the rear tires of the semi and was knocked off of his bike … then run over by the semi trailer wheels.” The cyclist, a 49-year-old male, died that afternoon at Spanish Fork Hospital.

The three incidents are under investigation, and the victims’ names have not yet been released.

It’s a painful example of what the city planning advocates at Sweet Streets call “one of the city’s most pressing public health issues” and what Nate Blouin, a Democratic candidate for Utah Senate, pledges to make central to his campaign — “traffic violence.”

“Seeing these tragic accidents happen, it just makes me wonder why in our society … (bike safety) isn’t more prioritized. I want to see us do more so these accidents don’t happen,” Blouin told the Deseret News days before Tuesday’s accidents.

Blouin, who is running to represent parts of Salt Lake City, Millcreek, Murray and West Valley City in Senate District 13, became an advocate for bike safety following his father’s death in 2018.

On Father’s Day weekend, Craig Blouin and his wife, Beth Allen, were cycling down a county road near the city of Delta when suddenly tragedy struck.

Craig Blouin was hit from behind by a 16-year-old distracted driver, a week after his 72nd birthday.

“It’s as horrible a situation as you can imagine. He was instantly dead on the spot,” said Nate Blouin, Craig Blouin’s only child.

The incident happened almost four years ago, but the painful memory was jogged this month by the string of bike fatalities on Utah roads, including the heart-rending death of 13-year-old cyclist Eli Mitchell, a middle school student who was hit and killed by an alleged drunken driver at an intersection in West Jordan last week.

Blouin believes creating safe space for cyclists is integral to addressing a variety of the state’s issues, including air quality.

Lydia Johansen helps make luminary bags in honor of Eli Mitchell, a 13-year-old who died after being hit while riding his bike, in West Jordan on Monday, May 2, 2022.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The death of the man in Spanish Fork Tuesday marks the fifth time a cyclist has been hit and killed by a motorist in the last month.

At least three of the five fatalities involved motorists who were accused of driving under the influence at the time of the accidents and who have prior DUI convictions, according to Jenn Oxborrow, executive director of Bike Utah.

The tragedies have raised alarm among bike advocates who are calling for more to be done to improve cycling safety through ramped-up enforcement along with investments in infrastructure.

“We have people running over cyclists and leaving the scene, people with long-term dangerous driving records and a history of driving under the influence continuing to drive. They kill people, and it’s not acceptable,” Oxborrow said.

She said part of the problem stems from insufficient enforcement policies for those with records of bad driving.

“When I look at someone like this person who just hit and killed that 13-year-old in West Jordan, he has 12 prior convictions for reckless driving, including DUIs. That is a pattern, and that is a person whose behavior we should be interrupting to improve safety,” Oxborrow said.

The April incidents contribute to an upward trend in fatality rates with motorist crashes involving nonoccupant pedestrians. And they come as the United States is in the thick of a traffic fatality upsurge that’s claimed the lives of tens of thousands of motorists, pedestrians and cyclists in recent years. 

Experts point to a variety of possible reasons for the burgeoning cyclist death toll — including an increase in aggressive driving, rising speed limits and bigger, deadlier trucks and SUVs.

“The bigger the vehicle, the longer it takes to stop, and the more likely it is to have blind spots. Overwhelmingly these accidents are related to motorist error,” said Oxborrow, who explained how these risks are especially relevant on roadways in the Beehive State.

“In Utah we have big families and therefore drive big cars. We also live in the suburbs so we have to drive our bigger, heavier cars everywhere we go.”

Utah state code defines a bicycle as a motor vehicle and creates safety standards for their treatment by other drivers. But Oxborrow said that many motorists ignore these standards, which she believes is part of a wider cultural disregard for cyclist safety.

“There is often this tendency to blame the cyclist, similar to domestic violence. They ask, ‘Was the cyclist wearing a helmet? What can the cyclist do differently?’ But I don’t think that’s asking the right question,” she said. “Instead, we should be looking at the challenges we face as a transportation community.”

Jen Oxborrow straps on her helmet prior to riding her bicycle to work in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 3, 2022.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

‘Complete streets’

Oxborrow said stricter sentencing practices for drivers with a history of bad driving, like those implicated in the April incidents, could help keep cyclists safe.

However, traffic engineers believe addressing the problem will require more than enforcement. They argue that safety efforts should be centered on smart street design and transportation planning.

Ted Knowlton, deputy director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council, uses the example of drivers who speed.

“Police and enforcement is an incredibly inefficient way to naturally slow traffic down. And there are ways that infrastructure designers and operators can naturally reduce the speed drivers choose to go, regardless of police and enforcement,” 

Knowlton said that bike fatalities are less about “individual decisions” of cyclists and motorists, but rather “is the result of a collection of decisions we’ve made in the context of the infrastructure we provide.”

Knowlton offers an example of improving bike safety through what’s referred to as “design speed.”

“We know drivers will drive slower on some roads versus over left on their own regardless of the speed limit. And there are ways that infrastructure designers and operators can naturally reduce the speed drivers choose to go, regardless of police and enforcement.”

One example is what’s called “visual friction,” which are design features that make a street feel either more narrow or complex, including curb extensions at intersections, tree-lined roads or protected bike lanes. all of which produce a traffic calming effect, according to Knowlton.

He also said the easiest way to improve bike safety is to follow the principles of general pedestrian safety.

“When we think about bicycle safety, we forget what we already know about pedestrian safety. We would never assume a pedestrian is safe walking along a busy street without at least a curb to protect them. And they’re even more protected when there are trees between them and traffic,” he said.

“We already know how to increase safety for pedestrians, so what we need to do is apply those same longtime lessons learned to bicycling. It is not sufficient on a busy road to have a painted line to designate a bike lane.”

The urgency is heightened with the knowledge that street safety investment is a win-win for travelers across the board: Research shows that streets designed to accommodate a wide range of users, from pedestrians and cyclists to public transit commuters, also improve safety outcomes for motor vehicles — a phenomenon referred to in traffic engineering as “complete streets.”

Other studies show how emphasizing bike safety can result in decisive impacts for overall roadway welfare.

For Oxborrow, the cycling issues exist at the intersection of safety and fairness.

“Our streets and our communities belong to everyone, and we all deserve to have safe access to our roadways,” she said.