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Florida vs. Bikes

Florida is one of the most dangerous states for bicyclists. So with our horrific record of bicycle fatalities and accidents, why are so many cyclists still so devoted to the sport?

Let’s pretend for a minute you’re about to go bungee jumping. As you second-guess your next move, you pull out your phone and Google the bungee cord company. And it turns out it has a terrible record. In fact, no bungee cord operator has had more of its clients die. You wouldn’t go, right? That’s the decision bicyclists make in Florida. Every time they go for a ride, they take a risk in the nation’s worst state for traveling by bike. Year after year, Florida is among the top states in bicycle fatalities, and we dominate the list of cities considered unfriendly to bicyclists. You might think cyclists might want to give up, to just switch to the safety of a big hunk of American eight-cylinder steel. Just the opposite. The number of bicyclists continues to grow.

The Carnage

If you want to find cyclists who have been hit by cars, it isn’t hard. Every regular group of riders seems to have someone among them with a near-death story.

Like Tam Clark, an advertising graphic designer. She was riding through an intersection one night on Northeast Ninth Avenue in Fort Lauderdale when a woman in a car decided to ignore a stop sign. Clark had no time to avoid running head first into the passenger window.

“The next thing I knew I was lying on the ground, and she was standing over me screaming that I was going too fast and asking who’s going to pay for the damage to her car,” Clark remembers. “I couldn’t believe she wanted to say it was my fault when she ran the stop sign.”

Clark had a bruised hip, but she was back on her bike a couple days later. “I’ve had so many near misses. People just don’t pay attention to bicyclists,” Clark says. “But it’s just too beautiful down here to stop.”

She was lucky her accident wasn’t worse. Every year since 2001, Florida has ranked in the top three states for bicycle and pedestrian fatalities. One hundred and twenty two Floridians died on bikes in 2012, the last year figures were available from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Only California had more deaths. But when you factor in population, Florida had more than six deaths per million residents – far more bicycle deaths than any other state.

In Broward County, 34 people died on bicycles since 2009, according to sheriff’s office records. That means there’s a bicycle fatality on average every other month in Broward. In Palm Beach County, 13 cyclists died from 2009 to 2013. The total number of bicycle accidents wasn’t available in Broward, but in Palm Beach County, there were 1,175 bicycle accidents over that five-year span. That’s nearly 20 bike accidents a month.

It’s not just a South Florida issue. When the non-profit advocacy group Smart Growth America studied the worst cities to be a bicyclist or pedestrian in 2011, it found the top four were all in Florida: Orlando-Kissimmee first, followed by Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, Jacksonville, and Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach.

Bicycle accidents nationwide had been going down since 1975. That changed in 2010, when bike accidents began to rise, with a 16 percent increase through 2012, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. That comes at a time when bicycle commuting has grown dramatically – it’s up 62 percent since 2000.

Finding examples of tragedies isn’t hard. In November, Miguel Aviles was riding in a pack of 300 bicyclists on U.S. 27 when he got caught up with other bikes, fell, and was run over by a semi and killed. In April, 66-year-old George Morreale of Boca Raton died when he was hit by a pickup on West Yamato Road.

There are a lot of reasons Florida is so dangerous for cyclists. Cyclists can bike all year here, increasing the number of potential accidents. There are the tourists, foreigners and transplants who come here from places where bicyclists are rare, like states too cold to bike. It’s likely many of them don’t know state law allows cyclists to travel in a lane of traffic when there’s no bike lane or that they’re supposed to give bikes three feet of space when passing. And regular cyclists say Florida drivers, for whatever reason, are less kind to people on bikes.

These negatives aren’t going to stop the regular bicyclists, says James Musters, one of the regulars of organized rides in South Florida, including Critical Mass. “Most riders I’ve known for years have been hit at one time or another,” Musters says. “It’s just a matter of whether they’ve been hit already or whether it’s going to happen soon.”

Liz Blake knows how that works. She was riding home from work in Oakland Park one night in February 2012 when it happened to her. The last thing she remembers is the white SUV coming up behind her.

Blake was wearing a helmet, but that didn’t prevent the concussion, nine stitches on her hairline, and bleeding in her brain. “My entire body hurt for a week,” she says.

It took her a couple months before she worked up the courage to get back on a bike. But she couldn’t just stop. Like a lot of bicyclists, it’s in her blood, it’s a way of life that rejects the notion that the only way to get somewhere is in a gas-guzzling symbol of our oil dependency.

She tries to justify riding a bike now. “You know, it’s not safe to drive a car down here,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re riding a bike or in a car, the roads are just unsafe for anybody.”

Hope for Bicyclists

Perhaps the best advocate for Florida bicyclists is a woman who knows well just how bad bicycling can be.

In 2008, Wanda Tison’s 17-year-old daughter was hit by a car as she biked home from school. The driver cut over too quickly after going around another cyclist and clipped Tison’s daughter. She suffered from bruised lungs, broken teeth and a concussion, which left her with severe mood swings, and her recovery took a year and a half.

“It really just terrified me. And now I’m diligent that every kid I come in contact with, I make sure they have a helmet and know about bike safety,” Tison says.

Since the accident, Tison took over as manager of the Florida Pedestrian & Bicycle Safety Resource Center, which works to educate people about bike safety. Her group is part of a statewide effort to make bicycling safer in Florida.

After that list came out in 2011 labeling Florida cities as the worst in the nation for bicyclists, Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad responded to the list by creating an initiative to make biking in Florida safer. The efforts include a study in 2013 of seven key ways to improve cycling in the state, including better road design and more education about bike laws for drivers and cyclists.

The ideas helped influence local governments. In Broward County, the county government and all 31 cities adopted new standards on how to design streets. The standards are still just suggestions, though, so there’s no telling if the rules will actually become reality.

The Palm Beach County Metropolitan Planning Organization in 2011 released a Master Bicycle Plan that envisioned a future of dedicated bike lanes and connected paths. The plan also suggests drastic changes to existing roads, like dropping U.S. 1 in Tequesta and Jupiter down from six lanes to four in order to allow for bike lanes.

“Moving the dial with infrastructure is not an overnight task,” says Nick Uhren, executive director for the Metropolitan Planning Organization. “We need to change the conversation first.”

Earlier this year, Smart Growth America released a new study looking at pedestrian and bicycle fatalities across the country. The report praised Florida’s recent efforts to improve its rankings. But the Department of Transportation’s education campaigns and plans have not made a dent in the statistics. The report still lists Florida as the most dangerous state for pedestrians and bicyclists, with a death rate that’s nearly twice the national average.

This year, a study by the League of American Bicyclists advocacy group gave Florida low marks, a one out of five, in funding bicycle-related infrastructure. The state also got low marks in enforcement of bike laws and in legislation.

That might have changed if the Legislature got its way. It agreed to spend $50 million in 2012 on a new cross-state bike path using old railways. Gov. Rick Scott, however, vetoed the plan.

Tison acknowledges the statistics haven’t changed like she hoped. “We do have, sadly, the worst record for bicycle and pedestrian fatalities,” Tison says. “Getting that fatality number down is not going to happen overnight. It’s just about getting out there and making people aware.”

Until then, the die-hard riders will still keep braving Florida streets. Count Rick Stevens, a marine sanitation engineer from Plantation, among them. He has been hit twice now. The first time was four years ago in West Hollywood, when a driver turned right in front of him. “I got like 15 stitches in my face. My brand new bike was cut in half. I went right over the hood of [the] car, which scared the crap out of everybody.”

The second one happened a year and a half ago. A driver who had just passed other riders cut over too early, just like Tison’s daughter, and clipped Stevens’ front wheel. It sent him in a ditch, but luckily all he suffered was scratches.

Through all of that, he has always gotten right back on a bike. “I’m kind of a die-hard, so just getting hit by a car isn’t going to scare me off,” he jokes.

“Why do I do it?” Stevens says of bicycling. “Because I’m addicted. Everyone does something bad for them, and for me it’s biking. You have to weigh the risk with the benefit, and to me, it’s just worth it.”

For now, that risk means biking in one of the country’s most dangerous places to be a cyclist. But for Stevens and many like him, no amount of statistics will get them off their bikes.

Eric Barton is a resident of Fort Lauderdale and an avid bicyclist.