Spaced City

Hundreds of Cyclists Are Hit on Houston Streets Every Year

Rick Martinez was lit up like a Christmas tree.

Like most mornings, Martinez rode his bicycle to work at a Pasadena petrochemical plant early last December. Decked out in a yellow reflective vest, Martinez had flashing lights on his handlebars and seat post so anyone could see him coming. He put blinkers on his helmet, facing front and back, as an extra precaution. 

Martinez was sitting at a red light near a Highway 146 overpass. When the light turned green, he looked to make sure the traffic had stopped before clipping his shoe into the left pedal. He made it halfway through the intersection before a car rammed him from behind. “I just remember flying forward, but still gripped to my bike,” Martinez recalled. He's not sure if he came off the bike before or after hitting the pavement; by the time he came to, two guys were dragging him out of the street. “I tried to stand up but I just fell right to the ground.” 

Martinez would later learn a bone in his left ankle broke when his foot was ripped from the pedal grip. He was on crutches for more than a month, then hobbled around in a protective boot for a while. He says he sometimes still has trouble walking. 

Martinez was one of the lucky ones. Last weekend, cyclist David Rosenfeld was hit by a car and killed near the corner of Bissonnet and Newcastle. He was biking to a memorial ride for Jon Trevelise, a cyclist killed by a Galveston driver last spring. 

In recent years, the City of Houston officials have taken some very public steps to address how hazardous cycling has become in the Houston area. Two years ago, City Council passed a law requiring that drivers in the city give cyclists at least three feet of space when passing them on the road. Working with groups like Bike Houston, the city last year announced a plan to end bike fatalities; one recent national survey of bike safety across major cities shows that on average five cyclists are hit and killed on Houston streets every year. Leaders have finally commissioned the city's first bicycle master plan in 20 years. In March, they unveiled the city's first dedicated bike lane running along Lamar Street downtown. 

However, the raw numbers show how dangerous it still is to bike Houston's streets. Between May 2013, when city leaders passed the three-foot safe passing ordinance, and April 2014, there have been at least 950 crashes involving bicyclists within city limits, according numbers HPD provided the Houston Press under a public information request. There were at least 213 hit-and-runs involving a cyclist during that time. (A quick caveat: without pulling the incident reports of nearly 1,000 crashes, there's no way to know the circumstances of the crash, HPD tells the Press. So, it's technically possible that some of those crashes involved something other than a car striking a, say, a bike hitting a car and fleeing the scene, according to the department.)

Michael Payne, executive director of Bike Houston, says that hit-and-run number, one every three or four days, reinforces what cyclists across town have long been saying. “That number demonstrates a serious problem,” Payne told the Press. “That someone just hits you and keeps going, that's a serious cultural problem.” Payne says the number of hit-and-runs is likely even higher when you consider the people, like Martinez, who were hit outside city limits or those lucky enough to walk away unscathed and didn't report it to police.

And while the numbers indicate that collisions involving cyclists are a daily occurrence in Houston, only eight drivers have been cited for breaking the city's safe passing law that went into effect in May 2013, Houston Municipal Court records show. (Another aside: the records-keeping system at municipal court is either so antiquated, or its staffers so inept, that a records request for ten sheets of paper cost more than $100; the best explanation city workers could give was that it took two hours of “programming time” to pull the cases.)

In fact, Houston police didn't cite anyone for breaking that law until December 2013, seven months after the ordinance took effect and just days after cyclist Chelsea Norman was killed by a hit-and-run driver in Montrose. The officer wrote on that citation: “I saw him. I'm a bike rider also.” Records show one of the eight drivers cited cut off a bike-mounted police officer and then got too close as he accelerated past the officer. 

Payne, who began working with Bike Houston weeks after Norman's death, says cyclists became concerned early on that the safe-passing ordinance was on the books but unenforced. “Police basically told us and council that they were out there looking for it but didn't see much of a problem.” Payne, and many others in the cycling community, acknowledge that it might be hard to catch someone in the act. And Payne wasn't looking for sky-high citation stats, but rather hoping a ticket here and there might change how drivers approach cyclists on roads across the Houston area in general.

But Payne says he grew even more concerned when he started hearing HPD officers say that not only was the law difficult to enforce, but that they weren't convinced many people were violating the law, period. Bike Houston advocates lobbied the city, and HPD eventually conducted some stings in February and March 2014 involving bike-mounted officers looking for drivers getting too close to cyclists; municipal court records show three drivers were cited for breaking the law around that time. But, Payne said, "[HPD] basically came back and reported to us and to council that they were out there and they didn't see much of a problem." 

Some cyclists started attaching three-foot flags to their seat posts, recording their rides on helmet-mounted GoPro cameras to show that cars were, indeed, still getting too close. 

Richard Tomlinson, a member of the group that posts "Ghost Bikes" around to town to memorialize fallen riders, says, “The running gag is, 'How do you get away with murder? You run over somebody on a bicycle.' There are no repercussions.” He in part blames the problem on lack of enforcement. But he also says it's a driving culture that needs to change.

Driving in Houston can be an aggravating experience. You have to watch for people shooting out of strip-mall parking lots, apparently unaware of the dense, oncoming line of traffic; people who don't use their turn signals and sweep across lanes, oblivious to other drivers; people who flagrantly run red lights (not yellow, or yellow-red, but flat-out red). On top of that, roadways across town look like the war-torn streets of Fallujah and congestion seems to get worse by the day.

“You get behind the wheel of a car here, and you start to feel everyone's a jerk. Everyone's in your way. I get that,” Tomlinson says. But, throw a cyclist into the mix, and some drivers boil over, get angry, and get careless. "It's not okay to take that out on cyclists," he says. "People who ride here for transportation are still viewed as a fringe group. ... That has to change." 

Payne with Bike Houston and other cycling advocates led a “Ride of Silence” from Memorial Park to the steps of City Hall last week to draw attention to the number of cyclists killed or injured riding Houston's streets. Perhaps the most notable hit and run in recent memory was that of 24 year old Norman, who was struck by a car and left for dead in December 2013 riding home from work; she was found sprawled on a curb along Waugh Drive at the base of a bike lane sign. Norman later died at the hospital. Last December, jurors convicted Margaret Mayer of failing to stop and render aid, sentencing her to 15 years in prison. 

Outside City Hall last week, cyclist Martin Robb told fellow riders how he was the victim of a hit-and-run last summer. Despite his flashing lights and reflectors, a driver plowed into Robb on Richmond before fleeing the scene. Robb broke his arm in two places and suffered head and neck injuries. "The odds are kind of stacked against us, and the risks are pretty significant," Robb said. 

Martinez, who was hit just days before Mayer's hit-and-run trial began, hobbled into a Harris County courtroom on crutches every day to watch the proceedings last December. "When I saw what happened to Chelsea, and what had just happened to me, it hit very close to home," he said. "I got lucky. That's all there is to it." 

What still bothers Martinez most about his accident is what he heard the driver say as he was being loaded into an ambulance. "He said he couldn't see me. ...How could he not see me? I had all these lights. I'll never get that." 
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Michael Barajas
Contact: Michael Barajas