About a month ago, a motorist happened to capture a (fortunately minor) accident on her dashcam in which a driver hit a student cycling on the sidewalk while leaving Homestead High School on Homestead Road in Cupertino.

Her video clip on social networking service Nextdoor generated hundreds of comments. Although all the comments were sympathetic to the bicyclist, many of them got the facts of the accident and some of the legal points wrong. I’d like to use it as an opportunity to illustrate a point I have often tried to make in this column – yes, it is important to follow the law, but sometimes that is hard because you are not likely to know the difference in the laws regarding riding a bike on the sidewalk in Cupertino versus riding on the sidewalk in Los Altos, for example. It is equally important to ride and drive safely.

The motorist

First of all – the motorist. The motorist drove through the sidewalk and almost stopped before turning right on Homestead. Is it the law that you have to stop before crossing a sidewalk? I wasn’t sure, so I used all of my Googling skills and knowledge of the California Vehicle Code, and if there is a law against it, I can’t find it.

But it takes approximately 15 seconds to find it as a sample question on the DMV License Test – the answer is unequivocal: “Yes, you must stop.” I make this point just to illustrate that some rules are really hard to find. Couldn’t be clearer in Colome, S.D., though: “The driver of a vehicle emerging from an alley, building, private road, or driveway within a business or residence district shall stop such vehicle immediately prior to driving onto a sidewalk.” The Los Altos legal code makes this clear, but the Cupertino legal code is silent on the subject.

But I am sure that if this were a Sunday morning and there wasn’t a motorist or a cyclist in sight, few people would actually stop before the sidewalk. What the motorist really did wrong (twice) is that he didn’t look around. First, he did not look to see if anyone was coming from either direction on the sidewalk (the cyclist was one of several cyclists and pedestrians who were about to cross the driveway), and he clearly only looked left when entering the roadway.

Of course, he wasn’t expecting someone to be coming against traffic on the roadway. But based on my experiences walking on the correct side of the road in Los Altos, the majority of drivers making right turns from either a cross street or a driveway don’t look right. That’s a pet peeve of mine. Please train yourself to do so – it isn’t hard to do, but it has to be made a habit.

The cyclist

Next, the cyclist. He was riding with other kids. Is it legal to ride on the sidewalk in Cupertino? Yes, but only if you are 12 or under (or the parent or guardian riding with someone 12 or under). There is no regulation covering this in Los Altos.

It is easy to see the intent of the Cupertino regulation – there are some places where it is just inherently dangerous, especially for an unskilled rider, to ride on the roadway, so we’ll let kids ride on the sidewalk. That is well intentioned, but it does not change the fact that it is also inherently dangerous to ride on the sidewalk.

Why? Because it is too easy to go too fast.

I am an old man, but I can still ride 20 mph on a flat sidewalk without too much effort. Would I do so? Heck no. This is much faster than what any motorist would expect. While driving the other day, I might have hit a kid riding approximately 12 mph on the sidewalk coming out of a deep shadow if my wife hadn’t shouted a last-minute warning. An easy rule of thumb if you are forced to ride on the sidewalk is to locate all the places a car could come from and make sure you are always within safe stopping distance.

And if you do see a driver, unless you are looking straight into the driver’s eyes and he or she clearly gives you permission to go, assume the driver doesn’t see you and isn’t going to stop. In this case, the kid was riding a little too fast and probably not paying enough attention; he tried to swerve out of harm’s way, and would have successfully passed in front rather than T-boning the car if the motorist had only stopped and looked right before entering the roadway.

Safe solutions

I don’t know the details of the bicycle parking area at Homestead, but there is obviously something wrong with the design if kids are leaving on the sidewalk to get where they have to go.

It shouldn’t be this dangerous to ride a bike to school in Cupertino or Los Altos (I am paraphrasing the headline of a recent editorial in The New York Times that I’d like to use as the starting point for next month’s column).

What do we have to do to make it safer? Start with infrastructure, but that will cost a lot of money and take a lot of time. In the meantime, obey the law, on a bike or in a motor vehicle. But more importantly, especially because sometimes it is difficult, impractical or even impossible to determine what the law is, raise your awareness. In the example I am using, either the motorist or the bicyclist could have prevented the accident. It took a serious bike accident 45 years ago to drive that point home to me. Let’s all try to learn from my mistake.

Chris Hoeber is a local resident, avid cyclist and founder of a cycling club. Email questions and comments to chris@cfhengineering.com.

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