May 28, 2014

A ghost bike in Pittsburgh. Ghost bikes, painted white and placed at scenes of cycling accidents, serve as memorials for cyclists hit or killed on the street.     Photo: Winfried Mosler/Flickr

Bicyclist Deaths, Explained

Driver error, rear-end collisions most responsible for fatalities

Why and how do cyclists die on the road? What's the fallout? Who's to blame, and how bad are the consequences? The League of American Bicyclists collected information on cycling fatalities from February 2011 to February 2013, and has released the most detailed analysis of these tragedies currently available as part of its Every Bicyclist Counts initiative.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration collects the largest dataset on the yearly number of cycling fatalities, but the League of American Bicyclists took it a step further, adding details from newspaper reports to understand the circumstances around each accident. Its findings indicate that the road is often a dangerous place for cyclists—especially in California, Florida, and New York, which have the highest share of national biking fatalities.

One of the biggest takeaways is that motorists are often responsible for cyclist fatalities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most cycling deaths happen on high-traffic urban roads, and in this study a majority of reports on the accidents found the driver at fault. Of the 628 fatalities included in the report, only 94 were considered the cyclist's fault. The greatest number of fatalities occurred because of careless driving, hit-and-runs, or driving under the influence.

Also striking is that rear-end collisions were responsible for 40 percent of the fatalities. As Vox writer Joseph Stromberg notes, rear-endings make up a small percentage of total collisions, so this indicates that they are extremely dangerous when they do happen.

And the fallout of fatal crashes? According to the numbers in the report, fewer than half result in any enforcement action. Only 12 percent result in a criminal sentence of any kind—certainly a stark contrast to the 238 accidents involving reckless driving.

The hope is that state and national departments of transportation will take note and make the roads safer for cyclists. "Otherwise," said League of American Bicyclists president Andy Clarke in the report, "we will have to keep reporting a totally unacceptable and unnecessary death toll on our nation's roadways."

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In 1998, Ann Patton and John Bender moved to a remote compound in the jungle of Costa Rica. In their isolation, they experienced a downward spiral that ultimately ended in John's death.     Photo: Chris Goldberg/Flickr

Costa Rica Murder Verdict: Guilty

Wife killed husband, says court

After more than four years, the saga of alleged murderer Ann Patton may be nearing an end. As the Tico Times reports, a Costa Rica criminal court convicted the 43-year-old American expat of killing her husband, 44-year-old John Bender, in 2010. Sentenced to 22 years in prison, Patton will now wait nine months while the sentence is reviewed. The couple's extravagant expat life—and the sensational killing—was featured in Outside's June 2013 issue.

The trial, which began on Monday, May 19, was itself the outcome of an appellate court's recent decision to overturn Patton's initial January 2013 acquittal.

Patton stood accused of shooting Bender in the head on January 7, 2010, while he slept in the fourth-floor bedroom of the couple's 120,000-square-foot living space. Patton and Bender had lived in Costa Rica since 1998, when Bender relocated there after making millions in options trading.

Patton always claimed that Bender's death was a suicide, but prosecutors appealed the acquittal—an action not permitted in the United States—due to multiple "inconsistencies." Bender was found in a sleeping position and without gunpowder residue on his hands, suggesting he may not have fired the weapon. Patton didn't have gunpowder on her hands after the incident either, however investigators did find gunpowder on napkins in the second floor of the couple's house.

"Beyond the fact that there was no blood on the defendant, beyond the fact that the pistol was found in another place, beyond the tampering of the crime scene, the only reasonable explanation, considering the body's position and the evidence found on the body, is that the bullet wound is homicide, because there was no way the victim could have done it,” said Adolfo Calderon Bogantes, one of the judges on the three-member appellate panel.

Doubts about Patton's guilt remain. Prosecutors still haven't identified a motive for the killing, and after Bender's death, Patton discovered that his fortune had been taken from her by the lawyers controlling his trust. Both Patton and Bender also suffered from multiyear bouts of depression and mania; Bender had injected Patton with home remedies to heal undefined ailments.

Stay tuned for developments, and revisit Ned Zeman's feature from our June 2013 issue for more on this strange and deadly story.

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In Providence, Rhode Island, you can seek counseling for your climate change anxieties.     Photo: Judy van der Velden/Flickr

"Global Warming" Scarier Than "Climate Change"

What's in a name? A lot, actually

Experts on climate change communications from Yale and George Mason University released findings yesterday that the average American is more likely to be worried about "global warming" than about "climate change." As the Guardian reports, researchers surveyed 1,675 people during a two-week period late last year and found that "global warming" was 13 percent more likely to be viewed as a "bad thing." The survey results were even more dramatic among specific ethnicities, with 30 percent of participating Latinos and 20 percent of African Americans viewing "global warming" as a more serious threat than "climate change."

This distinction is especially relevant in political rhetoric, and you don't have to be Noam Chomsky to understand that the language you use to describe certain phenomena can have a tremendous impact on furthering a specific agenda. Sometimes you can just be Frank Luntz. In 2002, acting as a Republican political consultant, Luntz advised George W. Bush to excise "global warming" from his presidential lexicon due to the phrase's ominous connotations. In a secret memo, Luntz wrote, "It's time for us to start talking about 'climate change' instead of global warming ... 'climate change' is less frightening than 'global warming.'"

If global warming—or climate change—has you on edge, you might want to plan a trip to Providence, Rhode Island. Local resident Kate Schapira has set up a booth in Burnside Park offering "Climate Anxiety Counseling" for five cents. Her "The Doctor Is In" sign is an homage to Lucy from Peanuts, though prospective patients might find Schapira to be a better listener than the sassy purveyor of Sisyphean football torture.

"I didn't want to do nothing," Schapira said. "I wanted to amplify my thoughts on it and wanted to know other people's thoughts on it—if they are worried or scared."

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The first foot soldier in the robot uprising.     Photo: Google/YouTube

Google Unveils Self-Driving Car

No brakes or steering wheel

Google has unveiled what it hopes will one day become the standard in automotive travel: a fully autonomous self-driving car. The sleek, gray podlike car—still just a prototype—has no steering wheel, gas pedal, or brake pedal. You simply plug in your destination, sit back, and enjoy the ride.

From Google's official press release:

We're now exploring what fully self-driving vehicles would look like by building some prototypes; they'll be designed to operate safely and autonomously without requiring human intervention. They won't have a steering wheel, accelerator pedal, or brake pedal … because they don't need them. Our software and sensors do all the work. The vehicles will be very basic—we want to learn from them and adapt them as quickly as possible—but they will take you where you want to go at the push of a button. And that's an important step toward improving road safety and transforming mobility for millions of people.

The car was built from scratch without using a preexisting model as the basis. Its main sensor has a full 360-degree view, allowing for more than 200 yards of visibility to track moving objects and obstacles. The driving program is designed to be on the safe and defensive side, avoiding larger vehicles and moving out of blind spots. Google's designers also accounted for the potential for accidents by granting the car moderate speed capability (currently a maximum of 25 mph) and making the frame more amenable to a collision. "We imagine at some point there will be an accident with one of these vehicles, so we've designed the front end to be soft," says project safety director Ron Medford. The car also features a redundant breaking system; if one fails, the other takes over.

Technically, the car isn't completely autonomous. It still relies on Google's map and road system, and all testing thus far has been monitored by two Google employees who can take control of the car at a moment's notice in the event of an emergency.

Even though the project is still years away from the market, Google has no intention of ever selling the vehicles. Instead, the prototypes (Google hopes to build 100 over the next two years) are meant to entice partners into the program that will take on manufacturing and marketing the vehicles.

Street testing will begin this summer in Mountain View, California, where the cars will interact with a live-fire environment, complete with clueless pedestrians, zipping cyclists, and twitchy lane-hoppers. It's hard to imagine it faring any worse than most teenagers behind the wheel.

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Good form, sir, good form.     Photo: Smithsonian's National Zoo/YouTube

Piano-Playing Otters at National Zoo

For Smithsonian's #ZooEnrichment

Many classical music aficionados deem Bach the supreme gothic composer on the pipe organ, but even he can't compete with the gaggle of keyboardists who are quickly gaining popularity at the National Zoo in Washington, DC.

Yesterday, as part of its #ZooEnrichment program, the Smithsonian institution released a video of its Asian small-clawed otters going to town on a keyboard just within reach of their cage.

"While they wouldn't encounter a keyboard in the wild, the activity engages their sight, touch, and hearing senses," the Smithsonian commented on YouTube.

At five seconds, one otter finds middle C, sets up with proper posture (both arms extended, head high), and maintains its version of a high-C melody with its right paw, sharping and flatting deeper notes with its left.

When is the album coming out?

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    Photo: Getty Images

13-Year-Old Girl Climbs Everest

Youngest female ever

Early Sunday morning, 13-year-old Malavath Poorna, the daughter of farm laborers in a small tribal village in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, summited Mount Everest. 

"I was initially afraid, but the training I received helped me overcome my fear. I never thought of giving up," Poorna told the BBC from a satellite phone at Everest Base Camp Wednesday morning.

She and her 16-year-old friend S. Anand Kumar climbed the Tibetan side of the mountain with a team of 10 Nepalese guides. Almost all climbing on the south side, in Nepal, shut down after the devastating avalanche in April that killed 16 Sherpas.

"She was strong and determined to climb Everest. We are very proud," technical guide Mohammed Ansari told Discovery.com. "She wanted to take the risk. She said that her community will gain recognition if they succeed."

Both Poorna and Kumar are impoverished—Kumar is a member of the lowest Dalit caste previously known as "untouchables." The climb was sponsored by a government-run social welfare organization in southern India.

Before Poorna took the title of youngest to summit the peak, Nepal's Nima Chemji Sherpa claimed to be the youngest woman to summit the mountain at the age of 16 in 2012. Teens on Everest have been a growing trend, and growing concern, for years.

She later described the view from the top to the BBC: "All around me were mountains. It was very beautiful."

You go, girl.

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Meanwhile, cats and dogs are getting along anyway.     Photo: Minimum01/Flickr

Study Questions Dog Lovers' Intelligence

Using results from 600-student personality survey

Claws out, everyone: Carroll University's psychology department is preparing certain animal lovers to fight like cats and dogs.

Researcher Denise Guastello and her team administered a survey to 600 college students, asking them to select whether they are cat or dog people, as well as which personality qualities they see in themselves and look for in pets. The results and interpretations are a little hairy. 

Guastello claims that dog people, overall, can put feathers in their caps for being more energetic and outgoing. Beyond that, there's cause to wonder where Guastello and her crew might fall along the cat/dog spectrum.

Cat people, she found, are more introverted—and generally the cat's meow. They're more open-minded, sensitive, and individualistic and have a much higher average intelligence than dog people.

The results give good insight into how many people prefer certain kinds of animals, but the sample size for each camp differs greatly and might limit the value of personality interpretations. Of the 600 students, 60 percent said they are dog people, 29 percent like both cats and dogs, and only 11 percent said they were cat people. Despite one group's qualities having been gathered from a much smaller group, Guastello defends her interpretations of personality and has attempted to explain them.

Differences in personality based on pet preferences, she said, might parallel environmental preferences.

"It makes sense that a dog person is going to be more lively, because they're going to want to be out there, outside, talking to people, bringing their dog," Guastello told LiveScience. "Whereas, if you're more introverted and sensitive, maybe you're more at home reading a book, and your cat doesn't need to go outside for a walk."

Another interpretation is that people choose pets with personalities that mirror their own, she said, because of overlap in living habits.

This is not the first study aimed at picking apart how dog and cat people tick, though it might be the first using only college student results. Unsurprisingly, results vary. 

A research group from the University of Texas at Austin found that dog lovers are the more extroverted, as well as more conscientious, agreeable, and self-disciplined; cat lovers were more open to new ideas and curious but 11 percent more neurotic. Another study from the University of British Columbia found that cat people are more trusting but also slightly more disagreeable, more obliging, and a third more likely to live alone. Dog people, while more suspicious, are more assertive, self-confident, and persistent.

"The general pattern that comes out of both studies is that dog owners are more social, interactive, and accepting, and cat owners (who own cats exclusively) are more introverted, self-contained, and less sociable," researcher Stanley Coren of the UBC study wrote regarding the UT-Austin study as well as his own.

Before you let any of these pet results peeve you, cuddle your furry companions. Multiple studies have concluded that petting both cats and dogs lowers blood pressure and heart rate. Our interpretation? Better adopt or pet-sit if you don't have either.

Note: A quick survey of Guastello's Facebook page reveals that she does not, in fact, appear to hate dogs.

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