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Rise in Bicycle Accidents in Philadelphia is leading to more Bike Laws

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On October 15, police found Andre Steed, a 40-year-old paralegal, down and bloody at 16th and Locust. Witnesses would tell police he’d been struck by a biker. Within 10 days, Steed was dead. The biker who fled scene still hasn’t been identified.

It was around that same time Philadelphia newspapers began a grammatical jihad against the city’s two wheelers, with several human-interest stories appearing in both the Daily News and Inquirer, telling of pedestrians struck by bikers. Two people in the last month – Steed and 78-year-old Tom Archie – have died after being hit by bikers, and at least one other has been seriously injured.

The Inquirer recently profiled Kristen Gwynn, a nursing student at University of Pennsylvania, who was struck by a cyclist on October 14. According to the piece written by Allison Steele, Gwynn has no memory of getting bulldozed along Boathouse Row. She suffered a skull fracture and still struggles with dizzy spells and hearing loss.

Daily News fitness columnist Kimberly Garrison recently jumped into the mix, telling readers of death-defying Center City anarchy: “Almost daily in my frequent journeys in and around Center City,” she wrote on November 5, “I witness near fatalities involving pedestrians and bikes.”

City Council took the bait. Today, Councilmen Jim Kenney  and Frank Dicicco  plan on introducing legislation designed to control how we ride, what we ride, and what we pay to ride.

Kenney is offering three pieces of legislation – one of which is certainly needed, the others: Eh. Kenney wants to increase the fine for riding on the sidewalk from $10 to $300, which seems fair, but doesn’t really combat the pedestrian murdering thing, as it’s rare to see any sort of speed demon on a sidewalk. His second piece of legislation will increase the fine for wearing headphones while riding from $3 to $300. Number three: Riding a bike “without breaks” leaves the rider with a $1000 fine and/or confiscation.

I’m going to get to DiCicco’s escapades in big-brotherism in just a minute. Let’s first talk about Kenney’s proposals. Biking on sidewalks is an atrocity – that’s true. Give those people a fine, take their bikes away, whatever. You’re not going to hear a peep out of anyone.

Bikers wearing headphones also scare the crap out of me, but should it be illegal? Probably not. Part of Kenney’s argument is that bikes are vehicles and should be treated as such, yet, there’s no law against drivers wearing headphones. In fact, wearing cell phone headphones and hands-free headsets is actually encouraged – a loophole around laws against talking on the phone while driving. If we’re going with the “same road, same rules” shpeal, we need to be consistent.

Kenney’s last law – fining those who remove their brakes – is extra-bizarre. He told the Daily News: “The trend with some of our delivery service people and messengers, for whatever reason, is to remove the brakes…It’s a state law that bicycles [must] have brakes.”

What Kenney gets wrong here is that brakes are rarely removed to create a lawless bicycle free-for-all, unless those Philadelphia bikers begin their riding experience exclaiming, “Welcome to Jackass.” Kenney’s “for whatever reason” is actually ignorance in the face of fixed-gear bicycles (or as the hipsters call them, “fixies”) and the needless forced enactment of hand brakes. A fixed-gear bicycle has no freewheel, which means it cannot coast, yet can be stopped using one’s feet, slowing down the wheel manually. If fixed-gear bicycles are outlawed in the city of Philadelphia, would we do the same with coaster-break bikes, which children are most encouraged to learn to ride on?

Think of the children, bud.

Frank DiCicco’s legislation would require all riders 12 and over to register with the city (for a $20 fee) and attach tags to their bikes, which, apparently, would easier identify those hit-and-run bicyclists.

This proposed legislation also comes in the wake of several pieces of bike awesomeness within Philly. September saw the creation of two new bike lanes, traveling up and down Pine and Spruce – beautiful, wide lanes which have increased bike traffic on those streets by 90%, according to The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. Another awesome (not as awesome, if you saw the YouTube smut I saw) event that came into these parts was the September 6th Philadelphia Naked Bike Ride. This was meant to promote saving the planet, a positive body image, self-sufficiency and community-building. Did it? I don’t know. But there were a whole lot of nakeds riding around. That much is true.

All these events, good and bad, have a lot to do with Philadelphia’s rising ridership. The Bicycle Coalition’s statistics found that more than 11,000 people rode to work everyday in 2008, with 36,000 making that trip at least once a month. More Philadelphians ride bikes today than ever before in the city’s history.

At that, most lawmakers want to stress they’re not against bikes – they’re for them! Kenney told The Daily News “it’s a good thing people are using more and more bicycles for transportation,” and Mayor Nutter (who has yet to take a position on such laws) recently posted a message on The Bicycle Coalition of Philadelphia’s blog, saying, “When Philadelphians bike, the city benefits.”

Philadelphia police Sgt. Ray Evers told KYW  that over the next few weeks, Philadelphia police are going to step up ticketing of bicyclists (police gave out just 14 tickets for bicyclists in 2008), but promises they aren’t “targeting the family on a Sunday trying to get to Fairmount Park on their bikes, and they coast through a stop sign.” Tickets will be given – as is already law – for recklessly going through stop signs, red lights, and biking the wrong way down one-way streets.

Those laws you’ve just got to live with, even though they’ve rarely been enforced. The new laws, proposed by Kenney and DiCicco, seem to disregard any real knowledge of what they’re against, and why.

October notwithstanding, there’s only been one fatal accident between pedestrians and bikers in Philadelphia since 2007. It’s terrible those accidents happened, and whoever left the scene of the crime at 16th and Locust (as well as the cyclist who hit Kristen Dwynn along Kelly Drive) should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, but are three isolated incidents in two years reason for new fines, outlawing fixed-gear bikes, and a license plate that – let’s be honest – will only lead to a U-Lock edition of Parking Wars once the law gets expanded to the curb.

photo: http://farm4.static.flickr.com