Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Spring is here, and with it comes the annual emergence of thousands of bicycles from garages across Iowa onto sidewalks, streets, and recreation trails.

And as bicycle riding becomes the favored mode of transportation for many, the roadways become increasingly dangerous for those on two wheels. In Iowa, 340 riders were injured as a result of vehicle collisions in 2016; eight were killed.

Cara Hamann wants to change that. An associate in the University of Iowa College of Public Health, Hamann is spending the year as a policy fellow in the college’s Iowa Institute of Public Health Research and Policy learning how to use her bike safety research to influence public policy and increase rider safety.

Like many, Hamann rode bikes as a child in Eldridge, Iowa, and her bike was her primary form of transportation to and from campus as an undergraduate at the UI. Not until later did she take riding seriously. She spent time as a triathlete but liked cycling so much she mostly dropped the running and swimming to focus on riding.

Today, her riding is both practical and recreational. She is a member of a local racing team, the Iowa City Cycling Club sponsored by the UI Heart and Vascular Center, and rides off-road for fun. It’s also her primary mode of transportation around town, commuting to work, visiting friends, and running errands. She guesses she fills her car’s gas tank once a month, if that.

“I like the freedom of it,” she says. “You can go by your own schedule, and you don’t have to worry about parking. I can ride right up to my office door. It’s a nice stress reliever too. It’s good exercise, and it’s good for the environment.”

Hamann made bicycle safety her research focus as a doctoral student at the UI College of Public Health—her thesis is titled “The Risk and Burden of Bicycle Crash Injuries in Iowa and Nationwide.” Now, as a policy fellow, she’s learning to use her research for the greater good. She worked with the Iowa Bicycle Coalition on a statewide policy agenda that improves access for bicycle riders and increases safety on the roads. She helped organize a bike safety policy action forum in Des Moines that brought together numerous state agencies and advocacy groups, rallied at the state capitol, and met with legislators and policy makers to advocate for safety improvements. She also advocated for legislators to introduce bills requiring motorists to change lanes when passing bicyclists and increased penalties for vehicle–bicycle crashes caused by distracted driving.

“I don’t want to do research just for research’s sake. I want to be able to disseminate my findings in ways that influence policy and make positive changes in society,” says Hamann. “My experience as a policy fellow has given me a better understanding about the phases of policy making and how my research fits into that process.”

How bike friendly is Iowa?

Iowa has pockets of bike-friendly culture, mostly in the larger cities and the recreation trails across the state. But if you go to bike meccas in the U.S., like Minneapolis, or places in Europe, you’ll find that even the bike-friendliest community in Iowa has a lot of room for improvement. In most parts of Iowa, there are very few bicyclists and no bicycle infrastructure.

Do you find policy makers receptive to your proposals?

People tend to be complete opposites in their reactions. A lot of people we talk to are bicyclists themselves and are very much supportive, while others don’t see this as an important issue. Surprisingly, it cuts along partisan lines, which I don’t understand at all. Bike safety should be a non-partisan issue.

So often, laws and policies put the onus on the bicyclist to keep themselves safe, that it’s their fault they’re not seen and get hit by a car. One of my studies found that in vehicle–bicycle collisions, the driver is charged with a criminal infraction only 26 percent of the time, and in those cases, they’re convicted only 41 percent of the time.

What sorts of policies can help keep cyclists safe while riding?

Many bicycle–vehicle crashes happen when a car is overtaking a bicycle, so anything that maintains a significant distance between a bike and a passing car is useful. Our research has found that even the most low-cost treatment, such as shared lane markings like sharrows, can be helpful. Sharrows are bicycle symbols with two chevrons above it painted on the pavement. They are intended to legitimize bicyclists’ presence in the street and suggest optimal bicyclist positioning. We found that drivers, older drivers in particular, maintain a safer distance when passing riders on roads with sharrows. They are not intended to replace other bicycle-specific treatments, such as bicycle lanes or separated cycle tracks, but painting a bike on the road is one of the cheapest things you can do.

Still, our studies show that more than 80 percent of drivers do not make a complete lane change when overtaking a bicyclist, regardless of the presence of sharrows.

What’s the single most important thing that vehicle drivers and bike riders can do to safely share the road?

Be vigilant. Be aware of your surroundings. Drivers, put your phones down, avoid distractions. Bikers, ride defensively. Make yourself visible, stay alert, and don’t assume drivers see you.