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Bike accidents spike by 480 percent

City sees big jump in bike, pedestrian collisions between July and September

Bike and pedestrian accidents soared in the city of Mountain View this summer including several injury accidents reported along some of the city's busiest streets.

From July through September, there were 29 reported bicycle-involved traffic collisions in Mountain View -- a 480 percent increase over last year. Pedestrian accidents also saw a huge jump from just one accident last year to 11 this year in the same time period.

The grim statistics reflect a new trend, and are not reflected in the city's recently updated Bike Transportation Plan. In the plan, the city reports that the average number of bicycle-related collisions annually declined between 2009 and 2013, dropping from 45 to 27. But that trend was reversed this year, when the city logged 51 reported accidents between January and September.

The Mountain View Police Department is also handling six traffic fatalities this year, which came up as a big concern for police and city staff at the Nov. 17 City Council meeting. There were no traffic fatalities in Mountain View in 2014, and an average of two fatalities per year since 2008.

Many of the accidents occurred during commute hours and along busy roads, including Middlefield Road and Shoreline Boulevard. Between July and September, there were three bike-versus-vehicle accidents on Shoreline Boulevard at or near Middlefield Road, as well as three just north of Highway 101. Other trouble spots include San Antonio Road near the San Antonio Shopping Center, and along East Middlefield Road.

The numbers may be slightly skewed to look worse, according to Sgt. Saul Jaeger of the Mountain View Police Department. Starting in July, Jaeger said the department started to report all bicycle and pedestrian accidents -- not just ones resulting in injuries -- to improve enforcement in the city.

"We have increased the reporting, so that makes it look like a bigger problem than it is," Jaeger said.

Despite the bump in reporting, injury accidents still saw nearly a four-fold increase between July and September compared to last year. Of the 29 accidents, 19 resulted in severe injuries or "other visible injuries," according to the police report.

The accident reports are used by the city's traffic engineers to see if there are any potential roadway improvements that could have prevented the collision. If a pedestrian was struck in a crosswalk, for example, the city could install "high-visibility" crosswalks and a yield sign if it is deemed appropriate, according to 2012 staff report.

These are the kind of improvements that residents demanded at the Bike/Pedestrian Advisory Committee meeting last month, following the death of 54-year-old Michelle Motalvo at the intersection of El Monte Avenue and Marich Way. Motalvo was struck by an SUV heading northbound while she was walking in the crosswalk. Family members and cycling advocates urged city staff at the meeting to make improvements at the intersection, either with a stoplight or a stop sign, in order to make it safer for pedestrians.

Bruce England, chair of the committee, said traffic safety concerns are on the rise in Mountain View. In 2007, when he first started attending the committee meetings, there were times where he was the only person from the public present. Now, he said, they regularly get 15 to 20 people in the room sharing their concerns. But England stressed that if people want to see traffic improvements in the city, they need to stay persistent and not lose interest throughout the slow and sometimes arduous process.

"Usually someone gets very excited about some thing they want to see changed," England said. "It usually requires a lot of staying power."

The Bike Transportation Plan, which was approved by City Council last month, includes a $49 million wish list of bike improvements throughout the city. The upgrades include protected intersections at several busy locations, like Middlefield Road and Shoreline Boulevard, as well as more bicycle markings.

Some of the ambitious plans include a physical separation between the bike lane and vehicle lanes, known as "class IV" bicycle tracks, on Charleston Road, Rengstorff Avenue and long stretches of Shoreline Boulevard north of El Camino Real. These also happen to be the same locations as several recent bike collisions.

Traffic enforcement

After the fatal accident on El Monte Road and Marich Way, the Mountain View Police Department ticketed a whole bunch of drivers. Jaeger, dressed in brightly-colored clothes, along with another officer wearing a red jacket, spent four hours out at the dangerous intersection crossing the street.

The drivers were given plenty of time to stop, Jaeger said, but by the end of the day they had ticketed 44 people for traffic violations. The vast majority of pedestrian accidents, he said, come down to the driver not paying attention. And Jaeger said he was convinced the results would be the same at many other intersections throughout the city.

The problem is that ticketing can only go so far. In a city of 75,000 residents, it seems hardly an effective use of resources to ticket a handful of reckless drivers in hopes that their behavior on roadways improves, Jaeger said.

Since March of this year, the department has ticketed fewer and fewer people for speeding, disregarding signs, disregarding signals and for using a wireless device, according to one police report. Traffic officers have been ticketing more for failing to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, however, and that number is expected to climb following the crackdown on El Monte Road in November.

"We're not happy the numbers are down; it's a matter of resource allocation," Jaeger said.

The police department is currently short one traffic officer, and has had to devote months investigating the six fatal accidents in order to determine whether criminal charges need to be filed.

Instead of enforcement, Jaeger said the department has been focusing more on education, keeping the Twitter and Facebook constantly updated with information on how to stay safe on the roads.

The root of the problem, Jaeger said, is that drivers, bicyclists and even pedestrians are simply not paying enough attention, and are distracted by their busy lives. People are driving way too fast on city streets, he said, and forget that they're driving "a 3,000-pound weapon."

"We all live extremely busy lives, we've all got deadlines," Jaeger said. "(But) people don't realize how quickly things can turn bad."

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