Can we make bike safety a priority in Orange County?
By Michael Schwalbe
Ten cyclists were moving along Orange Grove Road when a van sped past. The driver, angry at having to share the road, pulled out in front of the group and braked hard, causing one rider, Andy Prokopetz, to fall. Other riders obtained the vehicle registration number. The driver was later charged with assault and property damage. Prokopetz, who was 59 at the time, suffered a chipped bone, a gruesome rash and a new bike following the incident on June 25, 2014.
Orange County Commissioner Renee Price had this incident in mind when in November 2014, she and fellow Commissioner Barry Jacobs proposed creating a task force to study bicycle safety in Orange County. Orange. The task force that was eventually formed, functioning as a subcommittee of the Orange Unified Transportation Board (OUTBoard), included cyclists, transportation planners, traffic engineers, educators, elected officials, men business and law enforcement officers. The working group was asked to focus on education and communication.
Five years ago this month, the Bike Safety Task Force delivered its final report to OUTBoard. I only read the report recently and wondered what the outcome was. Are rural roads in Orange County safer today because of the work of the task force?
Heidi Perry, a longtime local cycling advocate, chaired the task force. Perry told me that the band actually achieved some things. The task force produced a series of safety videos, radio public service announcements, a poster and a brochure. The task force also sponsored an educational bike rodeo in Cedar Grove and, more sustainably, posted 15 Drive Safely/Ride Safely signs along rural roads in the county.
But the task force’s impact was diminished, Perry said, because the turnover of county transportation staff left no one to champion the group’s recommendations. As a result, few people watched the videos, heard the radio spots (only WHUP aired them) or saw the printed materials. COVID has also disrupted plans to hold more bike rodeos and other public events. And while the Orange County Board of Commissioners supported the task force’s efforts, the board itself backfired — only two members then, Price and McKee, are members today. So, for various reasons, the tracking fell through the cracks.
Another task force member, Alyson West, who now works at UNC’s Road Safety Research Center, agreed with Perry about the lack of follow-up. Addressing road safety issues through a citizen-volunteer model, West said, is not sustainable precisely because people come and go. “It takes a sustained effort between county staff, cities and the state,” West said.
Perry and West also agreed that prioritizing cyclist safety on county roads is more than a local issue. “It’s a system problem,” Perry said. “That’s how projects are scored. This is how money can and cannot be spent on road projects. It’s the NCDOT that limits funding for bike and pedestrian projects because they say the money is for roads. Or, as West put it, “NCDOT’s metric is automotive throughput.” The cars, in other words, are what matters; bikes are an afterthought.
Renee Price, who now chairs the Board of Commissioners, is willing to build political will and organizational capacity to bring about more lasting change. Price recognizes the durability issue and would like to address it. “If groups of cyclists come to the Council and say there is a need, based on experience and evidence,” Price told me, “I would be happy to put it forward. But I need the opinion of the community. Bring it to Council and we’ll see if we can set up a permanent group. It makes sense for me to have a permanent group.
So, are Orange County’s rural roads safer today than when the task force began its work? It’s hard to say. The working group recommended improving the collection of data on road incidents involving cyclists. But, according to Perry, that didn’t happen. Price said there was no hard evidence to cite, other than a lack of recent complaints.
Prokopetz still rides on rural roads in Orange County. I asked him if he thought things had gotten better. He thought they had, but he attributed it to more cyclists riding with cameras – like he does, front and back. On-board cameras make it possible to identify and penalize incautious drivers. “We now know that if you’re stupid enough to hurt a cyclist, you’ll probably get caught.” On the bright side, he added, “most drivers are respectful.”
If some of that respect is due to the efforts of the working group, so much the better. But everyone recognizes that there is still work to be done. The urgency of this work – to make cycling safety a priority and ensure sustained attention to cycling issues – will only increase as Orange County grows and more people cycling for leisure and transport. Now might be the time to accept Price’s invitation and push the issue. Again.
Michael Schwalbe is a retired sociology professor and non-retired cyclist. He has lived in Chapel Hill since 1990.