Video of right-hook collision shows risks at NE Couch and Grand

As Portland wraps up its first major study of its unusual “yield to bikes” LED sign on Northeast Couch Street at Grand Avenue, a TriMet bus video of a recent collision at the intersection shows that the longstanding right-hook problem at the corner isn’t solved yet.

Lane Werner, a nursing student at Linfield College’s Northwest Portland campus who said he’s chosen not to own a car, has been kept off his bike for three months after the work van in the video above turned in front of him at the light as he was overtaking it. The slow-motion collision was captured by a bus that was immediately behind.

The event happened at 9:30 a.m. on Dec. 4. Werner, who had the right of way in this situation because he was going straight and the van was turning, was knocked off his bicycle, which was crushed, and remains in physical therapy for both upper and lower back injuries related to his impact on the pavement.

Werner said the driver of the van has been cooperative, though he’s still waiting for results from an insurance investigation. He said the police officer, Mike Cox, didn’t file a police report, but seemed to give the incident more attention after watching the bus’s video.

“Before they saw the video, it didn’t seem like they were taking it very seriously,” Werner said. “They thought I just ran into the side of his car while he was turning. And once the police officer came back with the video, he was like, ‘Woah!'”

Werner said the van’s driver had been parked in the bike box rather than behind the white line where motor vehicles are intended to park. Here’s Werner’s account of the crash from his perspective, recounted in an interview last week:

It was a perfectly clear, sunny, dry day. I was just pulling up. I noticed that the guy was moving a little bit. At that point, I’m like, OK, carelessness. I’m banging on the side of his car, trying to look in.

Lane Werner, who was hit while riding to school Dec. 4.
(Photo by M.Andersen/BikePortland)

But as the van kept turning, its driver apparently unaware of Werner, Werner fell onto the curb beside the road. His foot was trapped beneath his bicycle, he said, though it wasn’t itself crushed when the van rolled over the bike.

In addition to the LED sign, which the city added after a series of right hooks on the downhill-sloping one-way street, the corner has a green bike box.

Things do seem to have gotten better at the corner since 2010, when someone stenciled “right hook lane” onto the pavement. (The indie traffic marking is no longer visible.) But it’s an example of an intersection where a bike lane can actually make a corner more dangerous, because it makes it so easy for bikes to overtake cars on their right.

The flashing LED sign at this corner, which has the same brightness as the traffic lights themselves, is in the upper right.
(Photo by J.Maus/BikePortland)

A 2012 city study of green bike boxes around Portland found that in several cases they’ve tended to increase crash rates, perhaps because they give people on bikes too strong a sense of security in their right of way. The box on Couch at Grand wasn’t included in that study.

It’s not clear from the video whether the bike-detector-activated LED sign at this corner, added in late 2011, was operating when Werner was hit.

“The flashing light definitely makes things salient,” Werner said. “Whether people are conscious of it, I don’t know.”

In an email last week, city traffic-signal engineer Peter Koonce wrote that the city is about to wrap up a statistical study of whether the LED sign seems to reduce risk at the intersection.

“There is some data at the location and we are nearly complete with a conflict study (before and after) assessing whether the sign reduces conflicts,” Koonce said.

It’s not clear yet what the city’s options might be at the corner. Werner said he wants to spread awareness of the right-hook issue.

“I would just like to feel like I was able to ride to school like I used to,” he said.

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