Helmet use in the county is improving but still below 50 percent. (Photo by Chip Scheuer)

After the death last week of cyclist Noel Hamilton—the second fatal hit-and-run accident involving a bicyclist in June—a memorial sprouted up at the scene on Old San Jose Road.
The driver had actually returned to the site some 40 minutes after the accident and cooperated with police. What did not materialize is evidence of protective gear. California Highway Patrol found no helmet or lights at the scene. Coupled with the June 8 death of seasoned cyclist Zachary Parke on Empire Grade—at which site no helmet, lights or reflective gear were found, either, according to CHP—the incident has done more than provoke shock at the thought of a hit-and-run. It’s underscored troubling statistics and highlighted the issue of rider safety.

According to data from the state’s Office of Traffic Safety, Santa Cruz County had the highest per capita rate of reported cyclist injuries out of major counties in California in 2009. (Alpine County was number one overall, with two injuries in its small jurisdiction of just 1.200 people.) Santa Cruz County’s rate of 74 accidents per 100,000 residents is double that of the statewide average.

Sources say the numbers are sky-high in Santa Cruz for several reasons, including a higher than average number of bikes on the road—although just how many is unknown. Cycling popularity is a pastime that is difficult for researchers to quantify.

Cory Calletti, the Regional Transportation Commission’s bicycle coordinator, says the RTC hopes to get a handle on bike ridership soon. Government officials and bike advocates agree that until the county better understands how many cyclists there are in Santa Cruz compared to other counties, the matter of the county’s safety record will remain something of a mystery.

“And that is the real problem,” says Micah Posner of People Power, who adds that Santa Cruz is teeming with cyclists (and who, after a stressful ride in Riverside County earlier this year, estimates Santa Cruz is actually much safer than other counties).

The RTC’s ridership count is in the early stages, with no time line yet for its release.

One source for county ridership is the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which shows 2.7 percent of Santa Cruzans used bicycles as their primary means of transportation to work in 2010. That’s a lot of bike commuters on the road, compared with 1 percent statewide and 0.6 percent nationally. Although the figures don’t account for people biking to the store or riding recreationally, they leave Santa Cruz County more or less in step with the rest of the state; they suggest that Santa Cruz County, with almost three times the average ridership, is actually safer than the state as a whole, since it has only double the accidents.

On the other hand, our coastal redwood paradise does not quite look like the gold standard, either. Santa Barbara County and Yolo County (home to UC–Davis) both have higher ridership, according to the American Community Survey. And both have far fewer reported biking injuries. Yolo County, for example, had over three times the ridership of Santa Cruz County in 2010 but less that one-seventh of the injuries in 2009, the most recent year with data available. So it would appear Santa Cruz County still has room for improvement.

One culprit may be our region’s tricky terrain, steep hills and sharp curves. Of the 74 reported cyclist injuries in the city of Santa Cruz in 2009, just 19 were the result of car collisions, says Zach Friend of the Santa Cruz Police Department. In other words, people seem to be falling off their bikes all by themselves.

“It’s also bikers,” says Mackenzie Kelly, who works at Spokesman Bicycles on Cathcart Street. “You have fixed gears riding around without brakes. First of all, it’s illegal. Second of all, it’s dangerous.” Kelly suggests a regular influx of confused, gawking drivers—i.e., tourists—could pose a danger as well. “You have to ride to survive, too. You don’t just hope everyone’s watching what you’re doing,” Kelly adds.

One can picture the quintessential Santa Cruz image of a cyclist careening down High Street on a beach cruiser with a surfboard clutched in one hand and a Slurpee in the other.
Still, research shows that local cyclists are slowly growing safer—or at least getting better at putting on helmets, riding with traffic and staying off the sidewalk. The county’s Bicycle Observation Study involves standing on street corners with clipboards, observing riders. The annual survey shows helmet use, for example, is at 45 percent, up from 36 percent in 2006.

Katie LaBaron of the county health department says the recent crashes are grim reminders of the need to wear not only a helmet but also front lights, reflectors and a blinking red light in the rear. “That’s not going to prevent a distracted driver from crashing into you, but it’s at least going to reduce the risk,” says LaBaron.

“If a crash occurs,” she says, “a bicyclist is going to get the short end of the stick.”