Sun-blind drivers can kill

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Mar 052012
 
Authors: Rick Price

I’ll never forget the night I knocked a Colorado State Patrolman on his back in the middle of North Overland Trail. I was on my bike, and I didn’t see him until my forearm hit him in the gut. He was on his back in the middle of the road in the blink of an eye.

The investigation, which took a week, determined that I was blinded by the flashing lights of the police cruiser parked in the southbound bike lane. The officer was standing next to his cruiser with no flashlight and no reflective material on his dark blue uniform. I was absolved of any wrongdoing in the crash because of the “blinding lights.”

There are a bunch of lessons here, but the big one is this: Watch out not to be blinded by bright lights; and this time of year especially, be careful of sun-blindness when driving your car or bike.

Sun-blindness occurs in Fort Collins within a few weeks before and after the spring and fall equinox. The spring equinox is March 19, and sun-blindness is a serious hazard for an hour after sunrise and before sunset on east-west streets. And it can kill.

Amanda Miyoshi was bicycling to Fort Collins High School on Sept. 11, 2007. As she crossed Horsetooth Road at 7:30 a.m., the 17-year-old driver headed east didn’t see her until it was too late. Amanda was wearing a helmet, yet she suffered a traumatic brain injury from which she is still recovering. The sun rose that day at 6:37 a.m. and was no higher than three and a half-fingers above the horizon, using the boy scout method of calculating the sun’s position by holding your arm out and measuring the number of fingers between the horizon and the sun.

Fourteen-year-old “SiSi” Mijiddorj was crossing Drake Road and was hit by an east-bound SUV at 6:43 a.m. on Aug. 20, 2009. The sun had risen less than 30 minutes earlier. At the time of the crash, the sun would have been about two fingers above the horizon. The SUV driver saw her a split-second before he hit her. SiSi died that evening.

Cyclists and motorists should be very careful on east-west streets this time of year, especially in the morning, but also in the evening. During morning hours, motorists should slow down and be aware that cyclists and pedestrians are headed to school.

Cyclists should follow this rule: If your long shadow points away from you, front or back, toward oncoming cars, the drivers of those cars cannot see you. Stop before crossing arterials, and walk across them if necessary. Use sidewalks if you must, and be aware that motorists simply may not see you if they are blinded. Another option is to change your route: Use the trails or use neighborhood streets where trees cast shade, and cut back on the possibility of sun-blindness.

Simply making people aware of this hazard can save lives. So if you are a teacher, RA, student leader or administrator, track down the online version of this column and circulate it to friends and colleagues. Teachers, please take this to class and read it to those students who ride a bike to campus.

Spreading the word, as I suggest above, is one of the best ways to build Fort Collins’ bicycle culture. If you would like to become a part of that culture, consider becoming a Safe Cycling instructor with the Fort Collins Bike Co-op. We’ll be conducting trainings over the next several months to prepare volunteers and hourly employees to help teach classes in local schools, bike clubs and summer bike camps. For a schedule of trainings check the Bike Co-op’s education page at http://tinyurl.com/BikeCo-op, or send me an email.

Rick Price, Ph.D., is a League of American Bicyclist cycling instructor and the safe cycling coordinator for the Bike Co-op. Contact him at education@fcbikecoop.org.

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