The death two months ago of a Northwestern freshman on her bicycle underscores the seriousness of the recent heated debate in Evanston about how far to go to protect cyclists from cars and trucks.

Chuyuan Qiu, 18, a first-year student from China, died after hitting a cement truck Sept. 22 on Sheridan Road.

For those who missed the debate (reported in recent issues of the RoundTable), it involves protected bike lanes, which have been installed on Dodge Avenue from Church Street to Howard Street and on Church and Davis Streets downtown.

Protected (or separated) bike lanes, so-called because cyclists ride next to the curb, with parked cars to their left to protect them from street traffic, are the latest approach to bicycle safety. In many cities they are replacing conventional bike lanes, in which cyclists ride between painted corridors just to the right of auto traffic and to the left of cars parked along the curb.

While there are many reasons drivers give for disliking the new protected lanes, two points seem incontrovertible. Pitting a 20-pound bike against a two-ton car is no contest. And putting a line of parked cars between a cyclist and traffic, in effect creating a safety wall, will make the cyclist far safer than if he or she were riding in traffic.

In the U.S., more than 700 cyclists are killed and 50,000 injured per year. Aside from the Northwestern freshman, a young woman was killed in Chicago’s Roscoe Village neighborhood Sept. 26 when she was hit by a flatbed truck. A 25-year-old cyclist riding a Divvy bike July 1 on Chicago’s northwest side was killed when a truck plowed into her. A few weeks before that a 29-year-old bike messenger was killed when he was struck and pinned under a tour bus near North Avenue beach.

Protected bike lanes have been found to be the safest option for cyclists. A recent Canadian study (Teschke et al) found a 90% reduction in accidents for cyclists on protected bike lanes.

Nevertheless, they are not a perfect solution. Drivers have to be more careful getting out of their cars, because traffic lanes down the middle of the street are narrower than if they were parked at a curb. And bicyclists have to be wary of unsuspecting passengers opening their car doors, and have to be more careful at intersections, since cars turning right may not see them. There are other issues too, though the City of Evanston is working to solve them, thanks to the heated debate that has played out in City Council chambers and in the pages of this newspaper.

Most importantly, protected bike lanes do not absolve bicyclists of following traffic rules. Car-bike safety is a two-way street, something lost on many cyclists. They routinely whiz past stop signs and even through red lights without stopping or even slowing down.

So here are some obvious but still valuable suggestions for the folks on two wheels.

• Stop at stop signs and stoplights. Use hand signals to indicate when and where you are turning.

• Slow down and look both ways at every intersection, even those without a stop sign or stoplight.

• Wear a helmet with a mirror.

Safety and common sense demand it.

Les Jacobson

Les is a longtime Evanstonian and RoundTable writer and editor. He won a Chicago Newspaper Guild best feature story award in 1975 for a story on elderly suicide and most recently four consecutive Northern...