Bicycle deaths are dropping on LI, but riders say roads still unsafe
Updated June 6, 2015 7:41 PM
By WILLIAM MURPHY
The number of bicyclists killed in accidents with motor vehicles declined
in Nassau and Suffolk counties between 2011 and 2013, but many cyclists
say they don't feel any safer on Long Island roads.
Two harsh winters in a row have left many of the Island's roads in
poor shape, and most accidents -- but not fatalities -- are caused by
roadways, not motor vehicles, riders contend.
"When we started riding in earnest in early March there were lots
of potholes, and there seemed to be more this year, and lots of sand and
debris on the shoulders," said Arne Johnson, safety chairman of his
local bicycle club in Huntington.
Wind whipped up by passing cars pushes debris onto the shoulder, and leftover
salt and sand from winter operations make bicycle travel on roadsides
unstable, he said.
"Obviously your goal is to stay out of the way of cars, but when the
shoulders have sand, sometimes you have to go in the lane with cars, which
is what you never want to do," said Johnson, 66.
There were 17 cyclist fatalities on Long Island involving motor vehicles
in 2011, 10 in 2012 and nine in 2013, mirroring a state decline, according
to the most recent statistics from the state Department of Motor Vehicles.
Statewide, there were 57 bicyclist fatalities in 2011, 45 in 2012 and
40 in 2013, DMV data show.
But nationally, the death rate for bicyclists has trended upward, increasing
16 percent from 2010 through 2012. There were 621 bicyclist deaths in
motor vehicle accidents in 2010, 680 in 2011 and 722 in 2012, according
to a report last October from the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Among those killed on Long Island in recent years in crashes with vehicles
were Ricardo Fernandez, 44, of Amityville, who was riding a LeMond racing
bike on a service road off the Long Island Expressway, and Felicia Ruperto,
52, a Medford mother of two who had just begun riding for exercise when
she was hit by a minivan. Bradford Packer, 51, of Centereach, an unemployed
nurse, left his safety helmet home the night he died, and Stony Brook
University senior Seong Hoon Baek, 21, of Flushing, was killed on the
way back to his dorm.
One possible reason for the decrease in such deaths on Long Island is that
more cyclists are riding in groups, making it easier for motorists to
spot them, said Joseph De Palma, president of the Long Island Bicycle
"I've stopped riding alone," said De Palma, 59, of East Setauket.
"Now you see two or three people with yellow jerseys as opposed to
one guy in the shadows. You have more visibility."
Sal Levy, 67, of Huntington, agreed with De Palma that "cyclists have
learned to make themselves more visible" in recent years.
"I started with bright, flashing lights on the front and back years
ago. Nearly everyone has them now," Levy said. "The flashing
lights can be seen clearly from a distance . . . "
Long Island roads wind through state, county, town and village jurisdictions,
and there was no clear consensus among riders on which areas have the
worst road conditions.
"It doesn't matter where you go, conditions are pretty much the
same," Levy said.
Veronica Vanderpool, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation
Campaign, said the state Department of Transportation and some local jurisdictions
have become more responsive about the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists
on Long Island roads.
The renovation of Route 347, for example, includes bike paths. "A
lot of the infrastructure put in place has safety benefits for both of
those groups," she said.
But other thoroughfares can be especially hazardous, cyclists warned.
Johnson said he shies away from southern Nassau streets because they are
narrow and busy. "You can't ride a bicycle on Merrick Road. It
might be legal, but it's a death wish," he said.
Most bicycle club members interviewed said they preferred riding the local
streets in northern areas of Long Island, such as Cold Spring Harbor in
Suffolk, and Locust Valley and Sea Cliff in Nassau, because they are not
as busy and are more scenic. Other cyclists urged fellow riders to avoid
LIE service roads after the winter, because there are lots of potholes.
Johnson, of the Huntington Bicycle Club, which has between 225 and 250
members, and others said people who ride in groups, ride regularly, obey
rules of the road and wear proper safety equipment are the least likely
to be hit by an auto.
"You see people riding without helmets, riding against traffic, riding
alone, riding at night -- those tend to be most of your fatalities,"
De Palma said.
Of the 40 bicycle riders killed in the state in 2013, 30 were not wearing
safety helmets, three were wearing helmets and it was unknown whether
the remaining seven had helmets, according to the DMV. Helmets are required
by law in New York State just for riders 14 and younger.
Alcohol was also a factor nationwide, according to the report from the
Governors Highway Safety Association.
"Despite the association of biking with healthy lifestyles and environmental
benefits, a surprisingly large number of fatally injured bicyclists have
blood-alcohol concentrations [BACs] of 0.08% or higher," the legal
limit in most states, the report said.
"What's notable here is that the percentage of fatally injured
bicyclists with high BACs has remained relatively constant since the early
1980s and did not mirror the sharp drop in alcohol-impaired driving that
occurred among passenger vehicle drivers in the 1980s and 1990s,"
the safety group said in a news release accompanying the report.
For those who want to stay off public streets, there are dozens of bicycle
paths around the Island. New York State lists 20 biking trails, ranging
from 6.3 paved miles looping around Mitchel Field in the heart of Nassau
to the riverfront bike path, four-tenths of a mile, in downtown Riverhead.
Still, cyclists have differing opinions on bike paths and lanes set aside
for them on some major roads. Some riders like them, but many prefer back roads.
"The paths are really multiuse, used by joggers and skateboarders,"
Johnson said. "You can ride a bike, but you can't go fast. Most
of us prefer streets."
De Palma said that although he does not always look for bicycle lanes,
he lobbied for creating more of them. "People feel more confident
taking a bicycle path or a bicycle lane, and feel more confident taking
their children on those paths," he said.
Last month, about two dozen riders from the Mineola Bicycle Club, with
about 370 members, gathered in a parking lot before taking a ride of silence
through village streets in memory of cyclists who have been killed over
"We try to be very vigilant while we ride," said Gilbert Omega,
42, of Elmont. "When we ride as a group, the leader usually points
out if there's some debris on the road or potholes."