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Tragic accident raises bike safety, traffic concerns

The season for cycling is here. Blue skies, dry roads, Island trails budding with flowers. The outdoors beckons. Cycling, whether professional or recreational, is a favorite Island pastime. Residents enjoy ample bike trials, winding roads and plenty of biker-friendly sidewalk space. But with these amenities comes responsibility.

Mercer Island, along with Bellevue and Seattle, abides by all King County cycling laws. This means that cyclists must follow the rules of the road, as do drivers. Yielding the right of way, making a complete stop, keeping within the speed; all of these laws apply. Riders must also wear bike helmets — although Mercer Island police do not always enforce this law. Instead, according to MIPD Operations Commander Dave Jokinen, officers will take an "educational approach."

"As far as helmets go, there's a very high compliance rate [on Mercer Island]. If we see someone without a helmet, we provide it as an educational opportunity. We advise them on the positive benefits of wearing helmets," Jokinen said.

Yet a tragic accident earlier this month, when Mercer Island High School senior Ben Yu went through the rear window of a Volkswagen Bug after flipping over the handlebars of his bike, may push Islanders to question the MIPD's educational approach. Yu was not wearing a helmet. Today, still recovering from a broken nose and fractured orbitals, Yu wishes that he had taken the state's helmet law more seriously.

"Actually, I would have wanted a full BMX helmet to protect the front of my face," the 17-year-old said, admitting that, before last week's accident, he voluntarily rode without a helmet. Now things have changed.

"I'm not sure when I'm going to start riding again, but when I do, I will wear a helmet," Yu said.

The teenager has also re-evaluated other biking safety rules; such as using caution in bad weather and heeding speed limits.

"You gotta take into account weather. Whatever you learn in driver's ed might also help with a bike," he said.

King County bike safety laws support Yu's observation.

"Cyclists have to follow all the same rules of road as motor vehicles. They have to stop at signs, look both ways, share the road," Jokinen said, adding that these laws are especially important on Mercer Island's busier roads. "When riding along Island Crest Way on the bike path, you're crossing several side streets. Sometimes drivers might not be paying attention. Take care as a cyclist."

Heavy traffic areas on the Island — the block surrounding MIHS, included, especially after school or during sporting events — are not always monitored for biking and pedestrian safety. Although crossing guards look out for students at all three elementary schools and the middle school, the high school, according to Principal John Harrison, does not have the resources for such as system.

"The reality is, we don't have the person power to do that," Harrison said. "We've talked about it, but in the end, it's the police department's responsibility."

Admitting that the traffic situation at MIHS poses increased risk for accidents, Harrison said that last week's biking accident was the first in years. Therefore, he said, monitoring the area is not a high city priority.

"If there'd been four or three accidents there, then maybe the city would do something, but [last Friday's] accident is the first I know of," Harrison said.

Commander Jokinen echoed this observation.

"We haven't had a whole lot of traffic issues or problems at that area during after-school events," he said. "I can't recall anyone saying, 'You need to put [caution] lights in there.'"

But he admitted that there is a police presence. Off-duty officers regularly attend sporting events at the high school and monitor traffic when they are over. Speed enforcement near MIHS and its surrounding neighborhood is also common.

"Any time somebody calls and asks us to take a look at that area, we'll do it," Jokinen said.

Yet when it comes to safety, individual responsibility and caution preside.

Following the rules of the road — whether behind the wheel, on a bike seat or walking — is rudimentary. And it shouldn't have to take a horrific accident to learn this. But unfortunately, as Yu admits, it sometimes does.

For King County bike laws and safety, visit: www.kingcounty.gov/transportation/kcdot/Roads/Bicycling.aspx

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