Jeb Smith was on his after-work bicycle ride, crossing the road to get to a park, when he was hit.
“The truck came out of nowhere taking this left turn and barreled into me,” Smith said. “I was thrown up onto the car and then they backed off and I kind of rolled off onto the ground and hit the ground.”
The crash happened in November 2019, on a somewhat busy corner in south Denver, where Logan Street and Iliff Avenue intersect. Smith, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and works as a financial analyst, was left with a long list of injuries, including head trauma and lingering shoulder issues.
What the driver did next stunned him.
“He sort of backed up a little bit and then peeled out around me and then sped southbound,” Smith said.
The hit-and-run that Smith survived is one 8,052 statewide crashes involving bicycles in the last decade where traffic investigators believed the riders were not at fault. That’s according to 2010-2019 data, the most up-to-date available, which KUNC queried from the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT).
Like Smith, most of the riders were hurt — more than 75% suffered injuries. Also like Smith, most of the crashes involved intersections.
Bicycle sales boomed after the pandemic hit in spring, as officials implemented stay-at-home orders and gyms closed. One survey by the Denver Streets Partnership found that 80% of Coloradans started biking or walking more.
Waiting for these bicyclists are patchwork safeguards on the streets, if anything at all, said Pete Piccolo, director of Bicycle Colorado, a nonprofit advocacy group.
“The infrastructure we have today prioritizes the quick movement of vehicles over the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians and other vulnerable road users,” he said.
He was already aware of the perils bicyclists face in intersections.
“Intersections are the most dangerous patch of real estate when riding a bike,” Piccolo said. “When you’re on a bike, you just want to get through that intersection as quickly as possible and you want to go get ahead of the traffic that’s behind you if you can.”
The data shows that 4,425 bicyclists were injured in intersection or intersection-related crashes. Again, these are collisions where officers believed drivers were at fault. An additional 32 of these kinds of crashes killed the bicyclists. That’s more than half of all the fatalities.
The data also shows that many of the drivers who hit the bicyclists were simply making a turn.
Tim Hoffman, a prosecutor with the Denver District Attorney’s Office, has prosecuted a number of cases where that happened.
“What they’re doing is glancing to their right, glancing to their left,” Hoffman said. “They aren’t seeing headlights from a car so they assume that it’s clear and then they pull directly in front of a bicycle.”
Hoffman knows first-hand what can go wrong. While commuting on his bike last year, he was hit in an intersection.
“A pickup truck accelerated directly into me, kind of hit me on my right side, launched me, they think, about 10 or 15 feet into the oncoming lane of traffic,” he said. “Unfortunately, the brunt of the impact was borne by my head.”
Even with a helmet, Hoffman suffered a traumatic brain injury.
“It was about six or seven days after the crash when I woke up and everything just went upside down,” Hoffman said. “I couldn’t really speak. Walking was really hard, cognitively was very, very slow and had trouble processing things and was rushed back to the hospital. They determined that it had been, essentially, delayed swelling on the brain.”
The long list of stories like Hoffman’s and veteran Jeb Smith’s have led communities to look for ways to better protect bicyclists. Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins are among those that have vowed to eliminate serious injuries in the coming years. As implausible as the idea sounds given the thousands of collisions, it’s possible, said Jacob Riger, the long-range transportation planning manager for the Denver Regional Council of Government, which works with dozens metro-area towns, cities and counties.
“Transportation systems should be able to accommodate human error,” Riger said. “We shouldn’t have to pay for our lives because of mistakes that are made. So what can we do? What can we do in our transportation system to make it safer for all modes of travel?”
This approach has a name: vision zero. The idea started in Sweden in the late 1990s and has since spread to U.S. cities. In the vision zero way of looking at the world, the time drivers save on roads engineered for speed is weighed against a human toll.
“Any loss of life is is unacceptable,” Riger said.
In June, the Denver Regional Council of Governments adopted a regional vision zero plan that outlines steps communities can take to make streets safer.
This week, CDOT and the regional council announced the selection of 30 transportation projects worth $58.9 million through the Denver-Boulder area that prioritize funding based on safety and accessibility goals, such as sidewalks, crossings and improved lighting.
Council planner Beth Doliboa says many local governments are eager to reduce crashes.
“So we’re actually going through and identifying a lot of the streets in the region and then we’re going to have different design criteria that go along with those,” she said.
It will take years to come to full fruition and participation in the plan is optional, Doliboa said, adding that many communities want to reduce injuries and deaths among bicyclists and pedestrians. Asked what pandemic-hit, budget-strapped communities could do immediately to make bicyclists safer, she listed a few quick fixes, including green paint at intersections.
“I would say painting. There’s a lot of crosswalks that aren’t visibly seen,” she said.
Communities could also make traffic turns on red lights at some intersections illegal to prevent cars from trying to get around bicyclists in intersections. Timing signals so that bicyclists and pedestrians can begin to cross before a light turns green is another low-cost fix, she said.
Some communities have implemented these and other ideas, like the so-called Idaho stop, which allows bicyclists to treat stop signs like yield signs and red lights like stop signs. The idea is that bicyclists can proceed through intersections when they deem it is safe, without having to worry about vehicles accelerating next to them or from behind in an intersection.
Breckenridge, Dillion, Summit County, Aspen, Thornton and Englewood all have Idaho stop laws, according to Bicycle Colorado, which is set to push to make the concept, also dubbed a “safety stop,” state law in the 2021 legislative session, arguing it will clear up confusion among bicyclists who ride from place to place.
“You can be in one town and be able to roll through a stop sign and you go to Denver and it’s against the law,” Piccolo, with Bicycle Colorado, said.
Another idea to protect bicyclists is called “20 is plenty,” an effort to reduce speed limits in many residential areas to 20 miles per hour. In May, Boulder’s city council voted unanimously to make that change.
“It means that any collisions that those cars have with pedestrians or cyclists at those lower speeds will be less likely to be severe crashes,” City Councilman Aaron Brockett said at the time of the vote. “I think this is a measure that will improve safety in our city.”
CDOT is also working to make roadways more welcoming to cyclists, providing to KUNC a list of projects, including simply making more space for bicyclists on the side of roads.
“Share the road is not a pithy slogan,” said Sam Cole, a traffic safety communications manager for CDOT. “It’s also the law. We’re very serious about that because the roads just don’t belong to drivers. They don’t just belong to cyclists. They belong to everybody.”
Yet not all drivers are happy to see bicyclists on the road. The internet is full of videos of drivers irked by bicyclists. One example is the driver of an SUV in Longmont in 2012 who kept beeping his horn at cyclists as they pedaled as close to the edge of East County Line Road as they could get. The footage, filmed by one of the cyclists, shows the driver beeping for the entirety of the two-minute video, even as cyclists waved for him to pass them. State troopers tracked the man down, who later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor harassment charges and misuse of his horn.
Cole says incidents like this highlight a cultural issue. Some drivers think bicyclists have no right to be on roads, and see them as obstructions, rather than people.
“Think twice, you know, somebody’s life is at stake,” Cole said. “They might be a mom, a dad, a son, or a daughter. They are real people. They’re not just an inanimate object out there.”
That’s kind of how Tim Hoffman, the Denver prosecutor, felt about the driver of the truck who hit him.
“I don’t remember much of it, but he apparently got out and asked if I was OK,” Hoffman said. “He said that he had a child in the back of his truck who he needed to get home and that he lived a minute away and that he’d be right back and then he took off and never returned.”
No driver was held accountable for the crash. That was also what happened in Jeb Smith’s case. His attorney, Matt Haltzman, of Fort Collins, expressed frustration that Denver police haven’t solved the case.
“We’re a year out and it’s still an open investigation that’s gone cold,” Haltzman said. “We know the vehicle that hit him, the insurance company (of) the vehicle that hit him, admitted liability. And Mr. Smith, who is a decorated military officer, was severely injured.”
Standing on the corner in Denver where he was hit, Smith feels that he was lumped in with all the other fender benders that police investigate. The whole episode has made him wary.
“I lost a lot of desire to ride, you know, particularly around here,” Smith said. “I don’t feel safe. Yeah. I mean, I feel pretty negatively affected by it.”