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THE SAFETY ZONE

Bicycle Signals On 'Go'

August 07, 2000|JIN WHANG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In an effort to make the streets safer for bicyclists, the state is now permitting communities to install special traffic signals that regulate bike traffic.

The city of Davis in Northern California is the first to try out the special signals.

The city, which experiences bike gridlock around the UC Davis campus, is using six bicycle-only lights as part of pilot program. The lights look much like normal traffic signals, except they are smaller. They allow bikes and pedestrians to move through the intersection while motor traffic is stopped.

Some city officials in Orange County are interested in the idea, though there is debate among local cyclists about whether the signals will make the streets safer.

"I think it's a great idea," said cyclist Ann Gerard, 41, of Orange. "[The lights would] make people more aware of cyclists."

Others are less sure.

"It sounds like a good idea; I just don't think it's going to work," said Jeff Rich, 46, of Anaheim Hills, who has commuted to work on his bicycle for seven years.

Nationwide, nearly all the 800 bicyclists who are killed each year are hit by a motor vehicle, according to National Safety Council figures. About 63,000 bicyclists a year are involved in traffic accidents. About half of those injured are children under 15.

The law allowing the signals was authored by Assemblywoman Helen Thomson (D-Davis), after the city of Davis concluded that the lights resulted in fewer bike accidents.

"We've had very little problem with motorists and bicyclists figuring it out," said David Wertz, a bicycle coordinator at UC Davis.

Davis is the only place in the country where bicycle signals are used.

Caltrans is now drawing guidelines that will describe intersections where the lights are useful.

"The intent is to use the signals where appropriate," said Ken McGuire of Caltrans' bicycle-facilities unit. "How you determine where it is appropriate could be based on traffic volume, accident history, bicycle/vehicle collision or geometrics."

These types of lights have been operating across Europe for years, said Tim Bustos, the Public Works bicycle coordinator for the city of Davis.

Although many may think two traffic lights slow things down, they actually improve traffic flow by eliminating bikes weaving in and out between cars, said Chris Tapio, associate consultant at Thomson's office, who worked on the city's project to test the bicycle lights.

Officials in Huntington Beach said they would look at adding lights at bike-heavy intersections. On Pacific Coast Highway around Main Street, for example, about 100 cyclists ride through during the peak hour, said Tom Brohard, interim transportation manager for the city's Public Works department.

The idea of bike signals is, perhaps, the most novel of several approaches being considered to improve safety:

* In Santa Ana, police have begun ticketing bicyclists who do not obey the rules of the road. They have begun the enforcement as part of an aggressive pedestrian-safety program.

* Costa Mesa police use a converted recreational vehicle to serve as a roving headquarters for officers conducting bike-safety initiatives.

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