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Handlebar-mounted video helps protect vulnerable bicyclists

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Andrew Holtz wears a video camera on his bike helmet to capture cars breaking the law. Mark Ginsberg and Bob Mionske are both waiting.

Dedicated bicyclists and attorneys who specialize in representing bike riders, both men say it is only a matter of time before one of them gets a slam-dunk case involving a Portland driver hitting a Portland bicyclist.

Despite the occasional flare-ups between local drivers and bikers, court cases are rare, the attorneys say. That’s because most of the cases involving bikers hit by drivers, or drivers with complaints against bikers, come down to one word against the other. Sometimes drivers and riders speed off before victims can get license plate numbers or identifying information. Sometimes, bikers hit by cars are knocked unconscious and remember almost nothing that a police officer or attorney can use.

But soon there will be more hard evidence, Ginsberg and Mionske say, because of the growing number of bikers placing small digital cameras on their helmets and handlebars.

One of those helmet “cams” is going to capture a video of an auto moving illegally into a bike lane and hitting a biker, or something similar. And the biker, after being hit, will have video evidence of the collision.

And maybe, just maybe, bike advocates say, as more and more bikers join the trend and wear bike cams on city streets, the effect will be to make the streets safer for everybody, possibly encouraging more widespread biking.

“When there are witnesses around, people act differently,” Mionske says. “It is a digital witness to the event.”

Extra eyes on the road

Southwest Portland resident Andrew Holtz started regularly wearing a helmet cam one day about two years ago, when he returned home after his daily bike commute. “I told my wife, you wouldn’t believe what I saw on the road today,” Holtz says, recalling drivers running red lights and texting while driving. A helmet cam, he figured, would help her believe.

A few months ago, Holtz recorded a minor collision at the spot where Southwest Skyline Boulevard merges into the Sylvan interchange at the Sunset Highway. A driver intending to make a right turn through a crosswalk heavily used by bikers failed to look right before turning right, clipping the rear wheel of a bike. The driver stopped and the biker was shaken up but unhurt. Still, Holtz posted the video online. It had more than 4,000 viewers.

Holtz posted another video on July 30 of his brush with a reckless driver while bicycling on Skyline.

Holtz likes the idea of drivers responding to a growing awareness that they might be caught on film, and he is vividly aware that the camera captures both sides —including bad language he uses when he gets buzzed by a car.

“I’ve noticed it’s had an effect on how I act, too,” Holtz says. “If I’m recording what’s happening on the road, I’d better be on my best behavior, too.”

Nobody is certain how many bike commuters are wearing helmet cams or placing the cameras on their handlebars. Jonathan Maus, founder and editor of website, estimates there must be several dozen based on people who have written him or spoken to him about their own.

Portland adaptation

Maus says the trend of using bike cams for this purpose has a definite Portland flavor.

“Most of the country, they think of GoPro (a leading bike cam brand), it’s for bungee jumping or motocross bikes,” Maus says. “It’s kind of interesting that in Portland they’re used for transportation riding advocacy.”

A few local bike stores sell the cameras, which are also used by mountain bikers who want to document their adventures. The cameras are also available online for about $200. Prices have been dropping steadily over the last few years.

One or two court cases in which bike cams make a difference will be interesting, but Maus says the major impact will take place as the price of the cams comes down, and their acceptance goes up. He expects before long helmet makers will integrate the cameras into helmets and sell them ready-made. When they do, bike riders — who tend to like gadgets and technology — will buy them, he says.

Of course, Maus says, bike cams could trigger a reaction from drivers.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if some really independent entrepreneur starts making cameras that fit on dashboards of cars,” he says. “I can see auto insurance companies having lower rates (for drivers with car cams).”

While bike video hasn’t yet made its way into a Portland courtroom, attorney Ginsberg says he’s used something similar in a case — a biker’s global positioning system or GPS. Ginsberg’s biker client was hit by a car from behind. The driver alleged the biker was moving so slowly he could not have been injured even after being hit. But the GPS recorded the bike’s speed as well as its sudden acceleration after being hit by a car.

“The implication was that it was his own fault, and we were able to show his speed was reasonable,” Ginsberg says.

Mionske expects as bike cams become more widely used, fewer cases will get to court because insurance companies, confronted with video evidence, will be more inclined to settle cases.

He also anticipates that bike-cam footage will be especially useful in cases involving drivers harassing bikers, especially what he calls serial harassers who buzz bike riders and throw objects at them. Those cases are nearly impossible to prosecute, Mionske says, but might not be with digital evidence. And helmet cameras, at the very least, should make some of those drivers think twice, he says.

“It’s a good deterrent,” Mionske says. “You can see it; it’s prominent. It’s pretty obvious you’re being filmed.”

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