Ride Boldly!

Bikes, bicycling, and road safety.

Physics, the Law & Tragedy

Another cyclist fatality is in the news, this time in the suburbs, where a 17-year-old was hit by a car when leaving church. As usual, the news coverage has been very conscientious about making sure we know the helmet status of the teen. As a change-up, they are also discussing other factors that led to the tragedy — physics, traffic law and what the Strib is calling “bad timing:”

  • The kid was leaving church at 8:45 PM and had standard reflectors, but no powered lights. As such, in Minnesota in April, he was riding in the dark without the minimum lighting requirements outlined in Minnesota Statutes 169.222.
  • The teen was moving against traffic flow, moving northbound in the southbound lanes of Shady Oak Road, which is a minimum of a 35mph zone near the accident location (but may be a 45 zone). Per Google Maps, the area near the accident site lacks shoulders, but has a protected sidepath on one side of the road.

Traffic law in Minnesota, and most science-based states, has cyclists move in the same direction as vehicular traffic. It helps put them within the most typical scanning zone of vehicle drivers, particularly where driveways and cross-streets are concerned. In addition, when a car moving at speed head-ons a bicycle, it really won’t matter if the cyclist is helmeted. Physics tells us that because both bodies have momentum, the force output is much greater. Because a car is heavier and moving faster, the output of the collision is going to wreak havoc on the cyclist.

Regulation lights would have helped in this case, because a collision of this nature negates the value of reflectors. There may have been a front reflector, but that reflector is less effective than a front headlight. The specific description of required equipment comes from 169.222, Subd. 6:

No person shall operate a bicycle at nighttime unless the bicycle or its operator is equipped with a lamp which shall emit a white light visible from a distance of at least 500 feet to the front and with a red reflector of a type approved by the Department of Public Safety which is visible from all distances from 100 feet to 600 feet to the rear when directly in front of lawful lower beams of headlamps on a motor vehicle. No person may operate a bicycle at any time when there is not sufficient light to render persons and vehicles on the highway clearly discernible at a distance of 500 feet ahead unless the bicycle or its operator is equipped with reflective surfaces that shall be visible during the hours of darkness from 600 feet when viewed in front of lawful lower beams of headlamps on a motor vehicle. The reflective surfaces shall include reflective materials on each side of each pedal to indicate their presence from the front or the rear and with a minimum of 20 square inches of reflective material on each side of the bicycle or its operator.

Pedal reflectors and side-visibility are not going to do a lot to prevent this kind of head-on crash.

The real tragedy of this situation is that is was not inevitable. This is not a situation where there were no alternative routes. Compliance with existing law would have done what the law was written to do — create predictable scenarios for all road users, respecting the laws of physics. And everyone involved in this tragedy would be okay today. Instead, we have one bereaved family, and one driver who is probably terrified of night driving. My sympathy goes out to all parties involved.

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Author: julie

Julie Kosbab is an online marketing consultant and active transportation advocate living in Anoka County, Minnesota. She was one of Minnesota's only League of American Bicyclists Certified Instructors when certified in 2005. She is a past member of the National Bicycle Tour Directors Association. She has 2 children and 4 bicycles. Find her on Twitter as @betweenstations.

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