Bicycling fatalities are down sharply over the past three decades in Minnesota. Twenty-four bicyclists were killed in Minnesota 30 years ago, while seven fatalities occured last year. State traffic safety office director Kathy Swanson says the encouraging downward trend does not offset the Minneapolis incident.
"We're seeing about a third as many bicyclists killed each year and so that is progress. But it is just such a painful thing to talk about progress when there is such a tragedy," she says.
...it's very important that (cyclists) make eye contact and that you are able to have a lane position that allows you to be seen by motorists.Steve Clark of Transit for Livable Communities
Nearly 1000 bicyclists were injured in crashes in 2005 in Minnesota. Like fatalities, cycling injuries are also on the decline. University of Minnesota Humphrey Institute researcher Gavin Poindexter says the trend is due in part to a personal decision made by cyclists.
"For bicycle crashes it is mostly related to the increased use of bicycle helmets," he says.
Minnesota lawmakers declined this past legislative session to approve a measure requiring that cyclists 16 and younger wear helmets. The highest cycling fatality and injury rate is among 10 to 14 year olds.
Twenty-one states and hundreds of cities around the country have mandatory bicycle helmet laws, but state officials know of no Minnesota municipalities with a helmet law.
Mary Nelsestuen, the chairwoman of the Minnesota Bicycle Advisory Committee, a state panel, says she has a mixed reaction to a mandatory helmet law.
"Wear a helmet," she says. "But for your health, riding a bike is more beneficial than if you're not going to ride a bike just because you have to wear a helmet."
The Minnesota Bicycle Advisory Committee Nelsestuen chairs is leading the Share the Road Campaign. It encourages motorists and cyclists to get along.
The campaign points out about half of all bicycle-motor vehicle collisions are caused in part by bicyclist behavior including riders ignoring traffic signals at intersections.
The other half are attributed to motorist behaviors including inattention and distraction.
Steve Clark of Transit for Livable Communities, a St. Paul advocacy group, says being seen, especially at intersections, is one of the most important safety considerations for bicyclists. He says many riders hug the shoulder or curb.
"They are so far to the right they are not seen by motorists pulling out from side streets," he says. "We tell cyclists when they approach an intersection to get further into the travel lane. Of course you want to look behind your shoulder and yield to any overtaking motorist before you do that, but it's very important that you make eye contact and that you are able to have a lane position that allows you to be seen by motorists."
Safety officials say too many cyclists ride against traffic or on sidewalks inviting crashes either with vehicles or pedestrians.
As for motorists, state traffic safety office director Kathy Swanson says numbers and her personal experience show while vehicle equipment is improving and helping save lives, the behavior of Minnesota drivers is not keeping pace.
"I don't know about anybody else. But my experience when I drive is that people are not driving better, being more cautious and more considerate. I notice just the opposite," she says.
More consideration, the statistics show, would make a difference. Many bicycle fatalities are caused by the failure of either the cyclist or the vehicle driver to yield the right of way.
In the case of the latest Minneapolis cycling fatality, police say there are are no indications of criminal driving violations. The driver of the vehicle is cooperating with investigators.