A string of recent bicycle deaths may make Minnesota seem like a dangerous place for cyclists. But in fact, the safety trend is going the other way as more Minnesotans take to their bikes.

How could that be when the number of deaths this year from bicycle crashes is on pace to supersede the toll in 2008 -- when 14 deaths were the most in eight years?

A closer look reveals that the numbers of both bicycle crashes and injuries are down statewide, even as the number of bicyclists is increasing.

There's safety in those numbers, some say, because it makes drivers constantly aware they're sharing the road with bicyclists.

"I believe we're in a state of rapid change, with the number of people using bikes for transportation," said Tim Springer, executive director for the Midtown Greenway, likely the most popular bicycle commuter corridor in Minnesota.

"Everybody's on a learning curve -- bicyclists and motorists. Fast-forward 10 years and we'll have a lot more of it figured out. Laws will be different, and behaviors will be different on all sides," Springer said.

"But it means that in the meantime, we all need to be really careful," he added. "Things are unclear."

Cycling swells in Minneapolis

Crashes and injuries are down markedly in Minneapolis, where the number of people who use bikes for transportation continues to swell.

The Midtown Greenway saw a 24 percent increase in ridership in the first four months of this year, compared to the same period of 2008. Ridership from March through December last year was up 32 percent over the same period the year before, said Shaun Murphy, coordinator of a nonmotorized transportation pilot program for the city.

Murphy said he expects increases of 10 percent to 30 percent this year.

The percentage of Minneapolis residents who bike to work increased from 1.6 in 1990 to 3.8 in 2007, according to the U.S. Census.

Meanwhile, bike crashes in Minneapolis last year were near their lowest point since 1993. Even with a spike in 2007, the average number of crashes from 2000 through 2007 dropped 24 percent from what it had been the previous seven years.

"More bicyclists mean more drivers are more aware that they need to be looking for bicyclists," said Michelle Poyourow, advocacy manager for the Bicycle Transportation Alliance in Oregon, whose largest city, Portland, has the highest rate of bicycling transportation in the United States. "And drivers are more likely to be bicyclists themselves."

Portland saw a six-fold increase in bike traffic into downtown between 1991 and 2007, while the number of crashes remained relatively flat.

Whose right of way?

Bicyclists continue to be "famous" for running stoplights and stop signs, Springer noted.

Yet the most common violation in the 981 bike-vehicle collisions statewide in 2008 was motorists' failure to yield right-of-way, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

Even so, drivers seem more likely to stop for bicyclists than they used to be, Springer said. But that causes confusion about who's in the right.

"If we're already developing a culture of deferring to the cyclist, let's codify that," he said. "Where the practice differs from the laws, it's dangerous."

Hennepin County District Court judge and longtime bicycle commuter Jay Quam can speak to that. He believes that drivers' deference has made the roads safer for bikes, even though he's recovering from two broken neck bones and other injuries from a collision with a vehicle two weeks ago.

Quam crashed through the window of a driver who left a stop sign without seeing him, and was ticketed for failure to yield right of way.

'Got to let the drivers know'

Minneapolis Police Sgt. Jesse Garcia agreed that the increase in bicyclists has helped make the "share the road" message more acceptable.

"But we're also reminding bicyclists that if they are going to be on the road, they need to follow the same rules as vehicles -- stop for stoplights, signal a turn. You've got to let the drivers know what you're going to do.

"We in Minneapolis want to increase the bike ridership and the knowledge that we are a bike-friendly city," Garcia added. "We want it to continue to be that way."

Quam said he believes more bicyclists are indeed obeying traffic laws, which has helped them earn respect from drivers. That includes him.

"In the past, I probably thought stop signs didn't apply to bikes," Quam said. "But I reformed way before I became a judge."

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646