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Grand Rapids car-bicycle crashes at 10-year low

Crashes between vehicles and bikes dropped more than 30 percent from 2017-2018.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Cyclists in Grand Rapids saw their safest six months in a decade with no fatalities and only 40 vehicle collisions between April and September, officials said.

City leaders attributed the success to Grand Rapids’ “Vision Zero” safety campaign of increased efforts to educate motorists on the five-foot-wide passing rule for riders.

A record 83 percent of drivers complied with the rule, an ordinance passed in 2015. The data was collected using radar devices attached to bicycles, which volunteer cyclists tested over six months.

The ultrasonic device calculates the distance between a vehicle and bike during a passing situation, said Mark Schlutt, a Grand Rapids cyclist who rode for the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration research team.

“I’ve had a few close passes this summer,” Schlutt said. “But to be honest, while riding with the equipment on our bike, I’ve never felt in danger.”

Crashes between bicycles and vehicles have trended downward slightly since 2009 with rates fluctuating every other year, according to the city. Despite the data, Schlutt says drivers have become more courteous over the years.

“They understand that it might be somebody’s mother, their father, their child…riding a bicycle,” he said. “So, they try and give them a little more safe passage room.”

Grand Rapids Police officers also collected data for the federally-funded research starting last July. GRPD was the first law enforcement agency in Michigan, and one of two in the nation, to use the radar technology.

Officers stopped 146 drivers for violating the passing ordinance, but only issued three citations in the informational campaign.

“Most of the motorists that we stopped simply were not aware of the ordinance,” said Sgt. Cathy Williams. “So, really our emphasis is education and will continue to be education.”

The city placed billboards throughout Grand Rapids to promote compliance with the five-foot rule—a “game changer,” according to Schlutt.

“That’s where the major difference has come from this campaign,” he said. “We’re trying to educate everybody in town right now to help them understand that we have this five-foot passing rule and not just a three-foot [rule].”

The second city participating in the federal program is Knoxville, Tenn., which has a three-foot passing rule. Researchers will take the data collected by both cities to evaluate the ideal enforcement standards, said Richard Blomberg, whose firm, Dunlap and Associates, Inc., is leading the project.

“We are about two-thirds of the way through the data collection period,” Blomberg said. “There’s a lot more that has to be done before we can reach any conclusion about whether the three or the five is the better way to go or whether they are equivalent.”

Grand Rapids is showing extraordinary improvements in awareness and responsibility on the roads, said Mayor Rosalynn Bliss.

“It really reflects that we are indeed building a stronger culture of respect between people who are walking or cycling or driving,” Bliss said.

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