Recent tragedies call attention to the clash between cycling and car culture
Vehicle crashes involving cyclists jumped by 8% in one year, according to Illinois Department of Transportation data for 2021 and 2022.
It's a trend that shows more work is needed to keep bicyclists safe, advocates say, particularly given four major collisions in the suburbs recently.
In Batavia, Emily White, a mother of five, was fatally hit May 23 while cycling across Route 31 at the Les Arends Forest Preserve. Eight days later, a 14-year-old boy was critically injured crossing Route 31 at Union Avenue in downtown Batavia.
"It's been devastating for our community as a whole," Batavia Alderman Leah Leman said. For White's close circle of family, friends and neighbors, "it's been really, really painful."
On June 1, a Schaumburg cyclist suffered critical injuries in a Hoffman Estates crash, and on June 2, a hit-and-run driver fatally struck Deerfield school board member Maureen Wener as she biked in Highland Park.
Statewide, 2,356 traffic crashes involving cyclists occurred in 2021 and 2,549 in 2022. A total of 34 cyclists died in collisions in 2021, and 35 were killed last year.
As of Saturday, eight cyclists had died in 2023, according to IDOT.
There's no one explanation for the crash trend, but experts point to the recent surge in biking converging with hazardous roads and drivers who are oblivious of cyclists.
"I think speeding continues to be a problem in this region in terms of people driving really fast and not able to react," said Metropolitan Planning Agency Senior Director of Transportation Audrey Wennink.
"Our roads are designed to facilitate speed, and people behave the way the roads are designed."
IDOT spokeswoman Maria Castaneda said that "it's too early to be able to pinpoint a precise reason for the increase, though we know fatalities have increased almost across the board in all categories throughout the country.
"Speeding and distracted driving continue to be a major factor in too many serious injury and fatal crashes -- behavior that is almost 100% avoidable."
Leman cited a disturbing disregard for laws at crosswalks. The 14-year-old boy in Batavia "was in a crosswalk, where it had flashing beacon lights ... and was struck by a vehicle."
Earlier on May 31, Leman witnessed drivers ignoring an adult cyclist at the same crosswalk. "Multiple vehicles just blew through," she said.
The back-to-back crashes in Batavia are doubly wrenching, city officials said, because of delays in state approvals for a Route 31 "road diet" project to reduce the four-lane corridor to three with a center turn lane. It could also include bike lanes.
Currently, the route's outdated, Leman said, and narrow lanes are problematic. "Although the posted speed limit for most of Route 31 is 40 mph, most people go faster than that," she noted.
Amid COVID-19, with decreased car traffic and limited activities, interest in cycling exploded.
Its popularity is still high, but some bikers are anxious, Active Transportation Alliance Advocacy Manager Alex Perez said.
They wonder, "What if I get hit? What if I'm riding with my child and something happens?" Perez recounted.
Coinciding with the increase in crashes, fortunately, are new efforts to prevent them.
The Metropolitan Planning Council supported state Senate Bill 2278, which passed the General Assembly in May and awaits a decision by Gov. J.B. Pritzker. The legislation would ease rules requiring municipalities to design intersections at state routes that can accommodate the turning radius of a large truck. Instead, local leaders could tailor intersections to include safety features such as protected bike lanes.
Another tool is enforcement, said Kane County Transportation Director Carl Schoedel, an experienced cyclist who survived a 2019 crash.
The county is "trying innovative approaches like the pilot project we have with the Kane County sheriff's office to increase traffic/speed enforcement in key locations," Schoedel said. "The basic idea is that we use transportation dollars to fund special enforcement details where a safety issue has been identified."
That included deploying officers near St. Charles North High School to deter recurring crashes, he noted.
Another improvement is IDOT's Vulnerable Road User Tool, a map of high-risk locations that allows people to make reports.
The mapping tool, required by federal law, is just one reason the future of cycling is bright, said veteran cyclist Terry Witt of Bartlett.
"I think 2023 is the year we will really make some solid breakthroughs in safety for pedestrians and bicyclists."
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One more thing
The NASCAR Chicago Street Race vrooms into town July 1 and 2, and that means road closures downtown to build seating areas, etc. The racecourse wraps around Michigan Avenue, plus DuSable Lake Shore, Columbus, Balbo and Jackson drives.
On Saturday, Chicago closed Ida B. Wells Drive east of Michigan Avenue.
From June 17 to 25, temporary road closures are planned in the racecourse area. On June 25, Columbus Drive between Jackson Drive and Roosevelt Road will be shut down.