Broken Faith

Accident victims question whether Tucson's bike-friendly rep is really deserved

Jan Mosier's scars, her crutches, those ugly black bruises—all are manifest signs of the crash.

But what you don't see is the shattered faith, after a lifelong devotion to the bike. This you discover only in her words, alternately angry and dismayed. They raise tremendous questions about two-wheeling in what's touted as one of the nation's best bicycling towns.

The day was Jan. 21, near dusk. Mosier left work and was pedaling home along Mountain Avenue, toward the UA. That's when the truck roared out from a side street and ran her down. A witness pegged the vehicle's speed at 50 mph.

"He slammed right into me," Mosier says. "He left pieces from his truck's trim in the road."

But he took what remains of his conscience with him. To date, he has not been found.

Mosier suffered a dislocated thumb that required surgery and a broken ankle that's now pinned together. A forehead gash called for 18 stitches, and the road rash was vast. So was the mental trauma. "I never thought this would happen to me," she says. "I've never even had a broken bone, never had any problems."

So these days, she's prepared to hang up the helmet for good.

That's certainly not the message boosters want to hear about our supposedly bicycle-loving town. After all, the League of American Bicyclists gives Tucson a gold rating, and last year Bicycling magazine ranked us America's 12th most bike-friendly city, asserting that our 620 miles of bike lanes "helped increase bike commuting by 58 percent."

Of course, some accidents are inevitable—even those involving seasoned riders such as Mosier. But the stubbornly high rate of crashes each year—including one in February when a driver deliberately careened into a training team—raises questions about how bike-friendly Tucson really is.

Not that we're alone. According to the latest data available from the U.S. Department of Transportation, 675 cyclists were killed by drivers in 2011, a 10 percent jump from the year before. And since 1975, bicycle deaths among adults have jumped by 167 percent.

Little wonder, then, that recent surveys such as one in Portland, Ore., found that the biggest barrier to bike riding is that people are scared to share the road with cars. "Riding a bicycle should not require bravery," that survey concludes. "Yet, all too often, that is the perception among cyclists and non-cyclists alike."

Still, there is reason for hope. Although the hundreds of bicycle accidents across Pima County are unacceptable, those numbers are coming down. Local government data shows 235 bicycle-related crashes and zero fatalities in 2012. That's down from 454 crashes and three fatalities in 2010.

The trends "have been fairly constant," says Matt Zoll, manager of the Pima County Bicycle and Pedestrian Program. "It could be safer, by all means. But if you factor in population growth, it's definitely gotten better."

Zoll sees even more safety in the numbers. "Research has found that when you increase the number of bicyclists," he says, "drivers become more aware, everyone becomes more aware of each other."

Police attention to bicycle accidents also seems to be improving. For instance, cyclists have asked TPD to focus its federal bicycle and pedestrian safety grants on monitoring crash hot spots. They've also requested that officers "educate" cyclists about the dangers of riding in the wrong direction along roadways—a leading cause of collisions.

"But we also want police to look for motorists turning flagrantly at red lights, turning right at stop signs without stopping, or coming too close to cyclists and failing to yield on left turns," Zoll says. That's in addition to watching for speeding motorists, which factors into 60 percent of bicycle-auto accidents.

Police also seem to be taking those accidents more seriously, says Erik Ryberg, a Tucson attorney who specializes in cycling injuries. "When I first started paying attention to this issue six years ago, it was deplorable the kind of treatment that cyclists got at the hands of the Tucson Police Department."

For instance, he recalls when a cyclist was assaulted by a carload of teenagers wielding baseball bats. "In that case TPD even had their license plate number," he says. "We tracked down the car and asked the police to go talk to them. The police knew exactly where the car was, but they absolutely refused to lift a finger. I don't think that would happen today."

Ryberg attributes the improvement to new staffing in the department's traffic division. "TPD has changed its attitude about whether cycling is a legitimate use of the roadway," he says. "I certainly think they have a long way to go, but I'm nowhere near the critic of them that I used to be. I'm just not hearing the horror stories on a regular basis that I used to hear."

Sergeant Maria Hawke, a TPD spokeswoman, says any perception that her department doesn't value cycling safety "is unfortunate. It is something that we always pay attention to."

For example, Hawke notes, TPD was recently honored for aggressively pursuing the irate driver who intentionally plowed into the training team. "That's the type of service that we always provide," she says, "and always intend to provide."

So where does all this leave Mosier, who is still licking her wounds? At first, Mosier says, she was confident that the cretin who ran her down would get caught. "Of course, I was just laying there in shock," she says. "At that time I had a lot of faith in TPD."

Today, not so much.

Still, even attorney Ryberg believes that cops have limited options if reckless drivers don't even care enough to stop and help. "When it's a hit-and-run," he says, "and police don't have good witnesses or they don't have a license plate number, there's not really much you can expect them to do."

In the meantime, Jan Mosier's scruffed-up helmet hangs on a hook, gathering dust.