The Kid, The Bike, and The Guardian Angel

A little boy rides his bike, in the dark, late, with no lights, no helmet, on the wrong side of the roadway. I knew what was coming.

It was 8:45 pm Sunday and we were out of milk, bananas, and cinnamon raisin bread. Foxy was riding shotgun, nose out the window, her spirit high on the clean, cool, salt air bombarding her eyes as we made our way up Calle Puente toward Palizada and the new Ralphs. There were cars on the road. 

There was also a bike. My headlights caught the pedal reflectors. Nothing else was visible. Cars approaching the intersection illuminated a small, 12-inch-wheel child's bike ridden by a darkly-clothed little boy pumping up Calle Puente to Palizada.

Just a few feet from the corner, a truck was parked adjacent the curb on the northbound side of Puente. The kid was skimming its side as he approached the corner. He was on the wrong side of the roadway, riding against on-coming motor vehicle traffic. There is no sidewalk on that side. There is no bike lane, either.

A car on Palizada approached the intersection. Its right turn onto Calle Puente would be a blind turn because of the parked truck. I madly flashed my lights at on-coming vehicles. I anticipated the worst.  

The car on Palizada went straight through. I doubt my mad flashing changed its course. Fortune--or a guardian angel--was on the kid's side. But danger still rode with him. More cars came downhill from Ave. Miramar. Momentarily, cross traffic was clear. The kid dismounted, then dashed to the sidewalk across Palizada.

I tracked him. I put my flashers on. A driver behind me was impatient. He chose to pass me as I matched the kid's speed on the sidewalk. In the driveway gaps between the parallel-parked cars, I talked to the kid as he diligently pedaled up the hill toward home.

"Did you know that's really dangerous?" I began. He stopped.

"What's dangerous?" He asked. 

"Your riding without a headlight and you're on the wrong side of the road," I replied.

He started riding again. Another car behind me zipped around my tail and between the kid and me.

"My Dad's following me," he advised as he struggled to control his bike over the steep driveway flares. The obstacles caused him to stop again. His Dad was way ahead. 

"Your Dad couldn't save you from the cars. They won't see you because you're invisible," I calmly warned. "They won't see you until after they hit you. You could get hurt there. You don't have a light. You don't have a helmet," I stated without the emotion that my pounding heart was betraying. He stopped in a driveway to listen.

"Look--I'm not trying to get you into trouble. I'm just trying to help you be safe. You can't ride that way. You'll get hurt really bad. I'm worried about you," I pleaded.

"I have to get home," he told me. He started riding again. I let him go on without interruption. He had no more streets to cross, just driveways. A latino man walked in the roadway, approaching his son.

"Is that your son?" I asked. "Yeah," he responded without saying much else.

"I'm worried he's going to get hit by a car," I pleaded. He looked at me like he thought I was strange. Maybe he was just confused. Maybe he thought I was some creepy person. I thought there might be a language barrier issue. 

"Do you speak English?" I asked, going out of my way to avoid sounding authoritarian in any way. "Yes, I do." He replied with only a slight accent. I was ready to speak in Spanish if I had to, even though my native English has buried the Spanish skills I once worked so hard to develop. The conversation continued in English.

I explained what I had said to his son and why I was making the effort. "I'm afraid your son will die in the road," I pleaded.

"I'll get him a helmet," he responded.

"He needs lights for his bicycle when he rides at night and he's riding on the wrong side of the roadway. Cars won't be able to see him and the helmet might not save him," I explained. "Did you know that he should be riding on my side of the roadway, with the traffic?" I asked without an accusatory tone.

"No," he said. The look on his face was guardedly curious, maybe on the verge of taking exception to my interference with his parenting or at least with his son's progress home, especially on a school night. 

"But I was following him home," he stated, repeating exactly what his son told me. 

"You can't save your son from the cars that don't know he's in the street," I observed. "I teach kids how to be safe on their bikes and I'm just trying to point out that your son will be safer if he used lights and a helmet and he rode on the correct side of the roadway," I pleaded again.

"Thank you," he said. "I'll get him a helmet."

But I wonder if I'd made the right choice. He's not my kid. I wonder if the message struck home. I wonder if they think I'm nuts. 

I can live with the latter. I can't live with consequences of a missed moment to teach a kid to be safe. None of us should.

So, grown-ups: educate yourself. Educate your kids. Enable them to protect themselves.

Even if it's not your kid.        

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Michael Fluchere September 17, 2012 at 09:49 PM
Unfortunately, it's not just kids that do this. Bicyclists fall into different camps; ignorant which can be changed to educated, and the more difficult camp; arrogant. Pelotons riding on the open road along PCH, 2 and 3 abreast, between San Clemente and Dana Point. The protected bike way is there because of many serious life changing accidents and some life ending ones.
Bob Baker September 17, 2012 at 09:50 PM
Nice going Miller. You just never know how you may have affected that family's lives. All towards the positive too. It takes a lot of guts to stand up and do what's right. 1 Bob
Howard LaGrange September 17, 2012 at 11:23 PM
I see cyclist riding against traffic, swearing in and out cars, no lights, no helmets, all the time. Most of them adults. Need somehow to educate riders on how to ride. Pleased you took the time to potentially save a life even though your comments were probably not appreciated. Just heard SANDAG approved a bicycle education, awareness and encouragement grant for Oceanside. One small step forward.
Tom Barnes September 17, 2012 at 11:44 PM
Just returned from Ireland with the narrow roads and almost all bike riders wear bright green or orange fluorescent vests when they ride. They can be seen a football field away. Bike riders in the US would be much safer if they wore these same vests. As a driver I really appreciated being able to see bike riders blocks away. Such a simple, inexpensive solution to bike safety around cars.
Bill Koelzer September 18, 2012 at 01:13 AM
Keep up the good battle, Brenda. Here's a question for you.... What ever happened to bike safety flags? See pictures of them here--- http://www.adrianjournal.com/ajfiles/bikerodeo.gif Once, in the mid-1970's, when Carl's Jr. was my PR client I developed a program whereby Carl's offered kids a chance to win a new bike at every one of the then only 150 Carl's Jr. units. (Carl Karcher loved the program cause the late Carl loved kids.) Kids and parents came in to Carl's and filled out a drawing ticket to win a bike, and they could buy a tall bike safety flag with a big triangle-shaped yellow plastic flag bearing the Carl's Jr. logo on it of course. The drawing entry ticket had a stub with bicycle safety tips and laws printed on it that the participant kept and ideally read. Soon, you began seeing those bike flags all over Orange County. And this caused more kids swarming to Carl's Jr to get another chance on a bike (one per visit/purchase). Also, more parents flocked to Carl's Jr. to enter the drawing for their offspring and to get a another flag for later, for their bike, for another child, a friend, a neighbor. Anyway, it was a whopper PR success and local governmental and children's/parents/school groups praised Carl's Jr. for their efforts in promoting bicycle safety through spreading the use of bicycle flags. So Brenda, what ever happened to bike safety flags? They make a bike soooo much more visible. Is it possible they'd ever become fashionable again?
Charles September 18, 2012 at 02:43 AM
(Just about) The only person you'll ever see riding a bike with no helmet is some dad riding with his kids. In general, adult recreational cyclists wear helmets. In general kids wear helmets but tomorrow or this weekend look around your neighborhood and you'll see him. He's a dad and he has no helmet on.
Charles September 18, 2012 at 02:44 AM
Most adult cyclists in the US wear some sort of bright jersey for that reason.
Charles September 18, 2012 at 02:45 AM
All four of my kids have them on their bikes. They're pretty cheap. I even had one when I rode a recumbent as bent bikes are less visible than uprights.
Dan Murphy September 18, 2012 at 07:25 PM
Great story, especially because it had a safe ending. Hopefully your words will sink in. Making yourself highly visible at all times of day and night is a bike safety cornerstone. Lights, reflective and/or light colored clothing, helmet- all so simple. Hard to believe how often they are overlooked. Thanks, Brenda, for all you do for bike safety. Stories like this are heartwarming, but are also a jolt of reality in how much still needs to be done.
Speaking of Spokes September 18, 2012 at 08:53 PM
The small flags are cute and fun. My daughter had one when she rode her trail-a-bike and I used to try to catch the flag when we were riding. "I'm gonna get your flag, Loren," I would holler. Then her little angel-hair-pasta legs would spin like mad as she screamed to Dad to hurry up and pedal faster. That memory is one of my favorites from all our family bike rides. Loren still remembers (perhaps traumatically).
Speaking of Spokes September 18, 2012 at 08:57 PM
You raise a critical issue: visibility on the roadway. Increased visibility buys reaction time for the motorist, which increases safety for the bicyclist. I always ride, day or night, using a fluorescent construction vest I bought at Lowe's. I uses high-quality 3M retroreflective striping, which is much better than other, cheaper products. Here's a link: http://www.lowes.com/pd_55210-98-94617-80030_0__?productId=3281120&Ntt=construction+vest&pl=1&currentURL=%3FNtt%3Dconstruction%2Bvest&facetInfo=
Speaking of Spokes September 18, 2012 at 09:09 PM
You raise a very common impression of motorists: that bicyclists should ALL be riding behind the concrete barrier on PCH. But Dana Point violated the Calif. Hwy Design Manual by erecting the barrier to create a Class 1 bikeway that is substandard. The HDM says: "Where heavy bicycle volumes are anticipated and/or significant pedestrian traffic is expected, the paved width of a two-way path should be greater than 10 feet, preferably 12 feet or more." Furthermore, it states "It is desirable that the clear width of structures be equal to the minimum clear width of the path plus shoulders (i.e., 14 feet)."
Speaking of Spokes September 18, 2012 at 09:24 PM
The reason the fast peloton riders don't bicycle within the Class 1 facility is because the bikeway is used by small children, casual bicyclists who weave within the barrier, skateboarders, and pedestrians. The combination of different users with different abilities creates safety hazards for everyone. By failing to adhere to the Calif. Highway Design Manual's recommendations for width, Dana Point's PCH bikeway has effectively excluded the high-speed bicyclists. That means they must use the roadway--as is legal under Calif. Vehicle Code section 21202--to increase safety for all.
Speaking of Spokes September 18, 2012 at 09:37 PM
Another issue that needs to be addressed is why bicyclists ride multiple riders abreast. They do so for their own safety when a lane is too narrow to share with a vehicle. They are granted that right by Calif. Vehicle Code section 21202, which says a bicyclist can leave the right side " . . . when reasonably necessary to avoid conditions (including, but not limited to, fixed or moving objects, vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards, or substandard width lanes) that make it unsafe to continue along the right-hand curb or edge . . . " Motorists don't want bicyclists to ride single file when those same bicyclists must take the center of the lane due to hazards or infrastructural problems. Imagine 12 bicyclists riding single file, each bicyclist requiring about 12 linear feet minimum. That puts the motorist at least 144 feet behind them. If those same bicyclists ride 4 abreast, then they consume only 36 linear feet of roadway, which is safer and more efficient for everyone. Dana Point has severe constraints on PCH: the roadway is sandwiched between the crumbling cliffs and the railroad. Encroachment upon the railbed isn't possible b/c of the suction that is created by passing trains. That meant the bikeway was squeezed to a substandard, often dangerous, width. I'm sure that Dana Point public works believed they chose the lesser of all evils when they dropped those concrete barriers down. The rest of us, especially bicyclists, are forced to adapt.
Speaking of Spokes September 18, 2012 at 10:40 PM
One of the readers just emailed me about whether the statement as to the substandard width is true. It is. The Calif. Hwy Design Manual undermines its own credibility so as to avoid creating a legal liability for jurisdictions that implement its standards. Here is a quote from the forward to that 2006 version of the document, as cited in a major State Appellate court case called Prokop v. City of Los Angeles: “it is neither intended as, nor does it establish, a legal standard” and “it is not intended that any standard of conduct or duty toward the public shall be created or imposed by the publication of the manual.” Go figure! Case citation: 150 Cal.App.4th 1332.
Mike DanaPoint September 19, 2012 at 10:15 PM
Charles, Dan and others. I agree wearing bright colored clothes at night is a good idea, however, there is not any evidence they increase safety. Even more so for helmets. What's key is better infrastructure, protected well lit bike lanes along all major arterials that allow kids and elderly to ride slowly but safely whether dark or not. In fact any place that has installed such infra, for example Davis or Long Beach, has seen huge increase in cyclists, and reduction in accidents. San Clemente should take lessons from those towns, and stop harking on about ineffective things like helmets and yellow vests that are actually going to discourage people from riding their bikes and hence decrease overall traffic safety!
Speaking of Spokes September 19, 2012 at 11:24 PM
Your right: we need better infrastructure that is safer for all users. But until that occurs, it is extremely unwise to wish the risks away by riding in a state of blissful ignorance. I disagree with your statements that devalue increased visibility. First, increasing a bicyclist's visibility on the roadway buys reaction time for the motorist, which correlates with safety by increasing awareness. Roadway workers are required to wear safety vests for that reason. The Calif. Office of Traffic Safety states that distracted driving rates rose 1% annually from 2004-09 and distracted driving was the primary collision factor in 16% of all collisions and fatalities in 2009 alone. The State of California has also counted the rate at which motorists are illegally using their cell phones, which is around 10-11%. Let's examine a simple rate x time = distance calculation. At 45 mph, a vehicle covers a length of 4.5 football fields in 1 second. A distracted motorist can destroy a bicyclist's life in a fraction of a second. So, using higher visibility clothing to provide motorists advanced warning of a bicyclist's presence on the roadway is, therefore, crucial to avoiding a collision.
Speaking of Spokes September 19, 2012 at 11:32 PM
Now let's examine your perspective on helmet use, which is also unsupportable. To fully assess the value of helmets in preventing bicyclists' head injuries, the SWITRS and FARS databases must be segregated for helmet use and injury severity. Additionally, personal medical records for every relevant accident must then be redacted to obscure personally identifiable data. Then the records must be examined for type of injury sustained. Coordinating that type of large-scale study across multiple agencies and healthcare providers requires a massive undertaking. There are a few small studies that support the value of bicycle helmets in preventing traumatic brain injury. Here's a recent one: a 2-year West Virginia Univ. study of a pediatric population demonstrates findings similar to prior studies looking at the effectiveness of helmets in preventing injuries during a bicycle crash. Bicycle helmets were shown to significantly reduce the rates of both skull fractures and intracranial hemorrhage. Concussion rates were reduced by about 50%. For intracranial hemmorage, the stats went from > 17% w/o a helmet to zero % with a helmet. The abstract for that study is here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22792660
Charles September 20, 2012 at 01:35 AM
"...wearing bright colored clothes at night is a good idea, however, there is not any evidence they increase safety. Even more so for helmets." Ya right.
Mike DanaPoint September 20, 2012 at 06:04 AM
There is significant evidence that helmets reduce head injuries for drivers, this is why racecar drivers wear them. Neon yellow cars would get rear ended less also. BUT, anything that is dangerous enough to require such extreme measures, will not be popular , reason people don't bike and walk much in San Clemente is due to unsafe streets, no amount of safety education will change that, better infra, road diets , wide sidewalks with no curb cuts and protected bike paths would. Let's get San clemente protected bike paths first , and worry about pedestrian, cyclist and driver head injury rates after that!
Mike DanaPoint September 20, 2012 at 06:17 AM
Brenda, academic studies have found close correlation between more helmets , less cycling. In general in places where helmets are common, cycling to school or work is seen as abnormal. For example as cycling in NYC has increased in last few years, helmets or hi-viz vest use has not increased, and yet accident rate per cycling trip has decreased. here is one good study:http://www.cycle-helmets.com/robinson-head-injuries.pdf. Both cyclist killed last week in Newport had helmets and highly visible clothes. Bottom line, worrying about anything but safer truly protected infra, is counter productive, and unnecessary fear mongering
Speaking of Spokes September 20, 2012 at 02:37 PM
Mike--I think we're on the same page here about the need for better and safer infrastructure. Mode share for bicycles will not increase as long as bicyclists must share the road with high-speed cars. However, remember that statistical correlation between helmet use and lower cycling rates is not equivalent to helmets CAUSING lower cycling rates. Like in other cities, people choose to NOT ride bicycles for short trips because of the safety risk. Advising people to wear helmets and high-visibility clothing to decrease risk of serious injury from cars cannot logically be argued against as long as the roadways are perceived to be unsafe for non-motorized transportation users. All that being said, here in San Clemente we are presently writing our first ever Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan, which will be fully incorporated with our town's Circulation Element. That Plan will be a game changer. In January, the Council passed the first Complete Streets Resolution that says: "San Clemente's Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan shall be fully integrated with the City's updated Circulation Element so as to comply with the letter and spirit of California's Complete Streets Law, thereby creating a balanced multimodal transportation system for all." Our decision-makers are on board and will set a high standard. The new Plan is the prerequisite to safer infrastructure. As such, San Clemente's future for safe bicycle and pedestrian modes of transportation could not be better.
Laguna Streets September 29, 2012 at 05:20 AM
I'm a 58yo kid and have an orange flag like that one on my commuter bike. The Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano were making them as a bike project for kids made by kids. The flag is orange on white and says "Pedal Power!"


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