The Reno metro area is nationally rated as a bicycle-friendly city, but also is among the 20 most dangerous U.S. cities for cyclist fatalities.
Neither of those designations surprised Cathy Corrado of Reno, who for six years has been commuting on a mountain bike from her home near the University of Nevada, Reno, to her job in Midtown. In that time she has had several near-miss encounters with cars and one crash that sent her to the emergency room with a bad case of road rash and two deep cuts on her head.
“Reno is a great city to ride bicycles; there’s lots of trails and bike lanes,” she said. “But during rush hour you can be taking your life in your hands if you’re not careful – or even if you are and (a driver) isn’t paying attention.”
The grim arithmetic
A recent study sponsored by CLIQ, a firm that manufactures camping chairs, notes that after decreasing for a number of years, cyclist traffic fatalities in the U.S. have been trending upwards since 2010. Between 2015 and 2019, 846 cyclists were killed. The greater-Reno area ranked 18th for bicycle fatalities in the list of the nation’s 100 most populous cities, with 6 cyclist deaths, a rate of 14.9 fatalities per capita.
Stockton, Calif., was first on the list, with 23 fatalities over the four-year period, or 14.9 cycling fatalities per capita; Sacramento, Calif., was the fourth-deadliest city, where 26 deaths translated into a per capita rate of 10.4. The data used in the study come from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the U.S. Census Bureau.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that although bicycle trips account for only 1% of all trips in the U.S., bicyclists face a higher risk of crash-related injury and deaths than occupants in motor vehicles. In 2015, more than 1,000 bicyclists died and there were almost 467,000 bicycle-related injuries, according to the CDC.
In the 2020 school year, more than two dozen children were injured in traffic accidents in Washoe County, including many who were riding bikes.
A deadly summer in Washoe
In Northern Nevada, several bicyclists have been killed in traffic accidents so far this year. On June 30, a 59-year old Sparks man died when he fell off his bicycle in traffic and was run over.
On June 19, Boryana Straubel, 38, of Washoe Valley, a nationally-acclaimed jewelry designer, died on US-395A while riding in the road’s designated bike lane. In that crash, the motorist involved failed to drive on the right side of the highway, crossed the double yellow line, entered the southbound travel lanes, and struck the bicyclist head-on, according to the Nevada Highway Patrol.
Straubel was pronounced dead at the scene. The Highway Patrol hasn’t yet released the findings of its accident investigation.
Drivers’ hostility a factor
Nico Colombant, a lecturer at the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, commutes to work from Midtown Reno to UNR on his bike. He has encountered hostility from some drivers who apparently resent sharing the road with bicyclists.
“It hasn’t been great; I’ve had a couple beer bottles thrown at me,” he said. “And sometimes a truck driver will rev his engine to increase exhaust smoke. I’ve been a victim of that a few times, too.”
His route often takes him along Center Street and Virginia Street, he said, where some drivers are often in a hurry and impatient. “I’ve lived in big cities all my life,” Colombant said. “I’ve had crashes, but Reno does seem more dangerous.”
Drivers need to be more attentive and give cyclists a wide berth, he said, noting that state law requires drivers to stay at least 3 feet from cyclists. Colombant was born in France and has ridden bicycles all over Europe. He said motorists drive fast there, but he feels safer on European roadways.
Fast vehicles, short tempers
“In France, cars go really fast, but it seems drivers have a lot more appreciation and respect for the cycle culture,” he said. “… In Reno, it seems some motorists have a grudge against cyclists. You can definitely feel it.”
On Mount Rose Highway, for example, the road is narrow but trucks and cars often speed past bike riders and “just squeeze them in,” he said. “…Downtown Reno is really uncomfortable for cyclists. I’ve passed drivers who get really mad when you get in front of them. I’ve never been injured, but sometimes I can really feel some rage against cyclists.”
The CDC and other sources repot that inattention and human error – of the part of both drivers and cyclists – account for the majority of crashes. Colombant said pedestrians also often create a hazard for bike riders.
“I’ve had people just step off the grass and into the bike lane right in front of me,” he said. “They are on their phones, even in groups of people all looking at their phones. That has happened to me quite a bit.”
Inattention causes crashes
Colombant said occasionally blocking off the downtown core on weekends would make things safer for bike riders. In addition, protected bike lanes that have rounded curbs or posts between the cycle and vehicle lanes would improve safety. A protected cycle track on Center Street has been in the works for years, but the plan may be changed because casinos want bike lanes on Virginia Street, the topic of a RN&R sidebar to this story.
Farrell Vaughn of Reno. Who also commutes to work at UNR, said driver inattention is an everyday hazard on the streets of the Biggest Little City. Intersections are especially dangerous, he said, and he has had several near-misses and one crash when drivers made turns across his path.
“There was no bike lane but I was riding close to the side of the road,” he said. “He made a left turn right in front of me. I hit the front of the car and rolled right across the hood.” He wasn’t seriously hurt.
Vaughn has been riding in the Reno area for three decades and has witnessed the growth in bike routes and traffic. Cyclists need to chose the safest routes to their destinations and keep their attention on surrounding conditions.
“I don’t listen to music when I ride. The cars are zipping by and a lot of drivers aren’t really paying a lot of attention. We’ve gotten better with bike lanes over the last 15 years or so. It’s a great town to ride in, but it can be a little bit nerve-racking.” – Ferrell Vaughn, cyclist.
He also has noticed hostility among some drivers and has had things thrown at him or drivers yelling for him to get off the road.
A two-way street
Rob DeHaan of Wingfield Springs commuted from Sparks to a job at IGT in Reno, but now works from home. His round trip distance was about 30 miles, both on protected bike paths and within traffic.
“I’m generally pretty deferential when it comes to cars and defending my space,” he said. “I avoid conflict whenever possible. If there is an opportunity to be on the sidewalk rather than the street, I would choose that option.”
When taking the same route over and over at the same times of day, he said, it’s possible to get used to the rhythm of the traffic flow. Recent improvements, such as the protected bikeway along Veterans Parkway, have made Reno a more bicycle-friendly city. It’s important for both drivers and cyclists to know the rules of the road, he said.
Rules of the road
Jon Edmondo of Reno rides recreationally and prefers bike paths away from roads, although he sometimes also rides in traffic, such as along Vista Boulevard in Sparks. “That can make me a bit nervous,” he said. “People are going pretty fast and I’m not sure they are paying attention all that well. Cell phones tend to be a bit of an issue.”
Edmondo said he isn’t surprised Reno ranks high for cyclist fatalities and also has noticed some “anti-bike sentiment” in the community.
“In some ways I blame bikers (for the hostility among drivers) to a certain extent. Some don’t ride single file, or do not very smart things at intersections. But I think the big problem is the inattentiveness of people in autos. That’s what scares me being on a bike in traffic.” – Jon Edmondo, cyclist.
Safety, he said, is a shared responsibility for both riders and motorists. “I sometimes get frustrated with other bikers,” he said. “I think that bikers need not be as pompous as some can be on the road. Cars are supposed to give you a safe distance, but you need to be making yourself as safe as possible.
“If you are having it out with a driver in a car, you are going to lose that battle.” Edmondo said. “I’ve seen bikers be pretty rude. I get it because drivers can ignore the rules, but getting nasty doesn’t help anyone.”
Keeping bike lanes apart from traffic – as seen on Veterans’ parkway and as planned for the Center Street Cycle Track — is an important way to keep car-vs-cycle accidents to a minimum, he said.
“I’ve seen that in Europe and in some U.S. cities,” Edmondo said. “Those are fantastic. It’s great because it gives that separation between the two that makes it a lot safer for the bikers.”