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Opinion: More can be done to protect bicyclists from fatal collisions

A graphic from the NTSB "Reducing Speeding-Related Crashes Involving Passenger Vehicles."

On Monday, April 10, bicyclist Lester Legarda was fatally struck by a driver on Cañada Road, a rural road popular among walkers, hikers, equestrians, and bicyclists in San Mateo County. Details of the crash scene suggest that the collision was at high speed and the result was so gruesome the coroner advised the surviving family members not to see the remains. The cause of the collision is still under investigation, however, visibility along Cañada Road that afternoon was excellent, and the posted speed limit was 50 mph.

Unless you are an active cyclist yourself, and given the dominance of cars in our culture, I'm sure your immediate reaction to this senseless tragedy focuses on blaming the victim: Was he wearing a helmet? Did he wear brightly reflective clothing? Was he riding along the shoulder? Was he a good bike handler? Not surprisingly, the answer to all this is 'yes.' You see, Lester was a member of Peninsula Velo, a large competitive cycling club and community of riders. Our team uniforms and helmets (which Lester wore when he was struck) are a highly visible bright orange and yellow. Being a competitive bike racer, Lester was comfortable handling his bike at high speeds among large packs of other cyclists. But more importantly, as a member of PenVelo, he abided by our rules of road etiquette -- always "be nice" and share the road with others. What's more, Lester was also riding with a Garmin Varia, a car-sensing radar device with a rear-facing bright red light. I have no doubt that Lester was as visible, protected, and experienced as any cyclist can be, and following the rules of the road.

So then, why did over 500 cyclists from the Bay Area, family, and close friends gather on the following cloudy Saturday morning to honor the passing of Lester Legarda? Because Lester was struck at a speed that made survival from the collision nearly impossible. It is a simple matter of physics that the faster an object moves, the more collateral damage it will cause upon impact. Data from the National Transportation Safety Board show the risk of death for a pedestrian struck by a car traveling 40 mph at over 85%! Yet, at 30 mph the risk of death drops to 45%. Clearly, even a 10 mph increase in collision speed dramatically increases the risk of death for walkers and cyclists.

One solution for preventing future tragedies along Cañada Road is tantalizingly simple -- reduce the 50 mph speed limit. Sure, drivers will still likely exceed the speed limit. But just like the lines of paint that define which lane cars are supposed to drive within, posted speed limits set expectations for accepted driver behavior along a route. Despite generous lane widths and long sight lines, there is absolutely no need for a speed limit as high as 50 mph. First and foremost, Cañada runs parallel to the Interstate 280 freeway, a route that allows even faster speeds, with a limit of 65 mph. While Cañada may have been needed as a high-speed thoroughfare prior to 280's construction, today, there is limited need for thru-traffic to utilize Cañada. Only the Filoli estate and the SFPUC Pulgas Water Temple park require travel along Cañada. Further, Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System (SWITRS) collision data confirms that Cañada continues to be one of the most dangerous roads in the county. It is no surprise that the portion of Cañada Road under the jurisdiction of the town of Woodside now has a 35 mph speed limit. Sadly, this reduction resulted from residents demanding a lower speed limit after an earlier tragedy on Cañada. My guess is that lowering the speed limit on Cañada has never been a priority for San Mateo County.

So please, I urge you to write/call/email your county supervisor and demand action to prevent further tragedies along Cañada road through the simple act of reducing the speed limit there. It is rare that such a simple act can result in a dramatic improvement in road safety with only modest inconvenience to most drivers. I acknowledge that other measures can and should be done to improve road safety; changing the speed limit is only the first step. However, other changes, based on my own experiences in road safety advocacy, often require much more time and significant funding. A simple reduction in posted speed limit could be done fairly quickly, given enough civic will. By lowering the limit, we acknowledge the inherent dangers of automotive vehicles traveling at high speeds and can significantly lower the chances of another fatality on Cañada road.

County supervisors, especially Ray Mueller (supervisor for District 3, which covers Cañada road), the bicycle community will be forever grateful to you for helping lower the speed limit on Cañada in honor of Lester's untimely passing.

Andrew Hsu is the director of advocacy for Peninsula Velo and a board member of the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition.

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