Bella English

If only drivers would share the road, bicycling would be safer

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Bella English
July 6, 2008

Last week, as I was riding my bike in Milton, I noticed a guy in a pickup truck at a stop sign perpendicular to my path. I'm always looking out for possible danger when I ride because it's everywhere, and this time was no exception. After stopping at the sign, the truck came straight at me. If I hadn't swerved and yelled, I'd be roadkill right now. He missed me by a foot.

To his credit, the guy stopped, apologized, and said he hadn't seen me. To which I replied: How could you miss me? I was practically in front of your nose, wearing a bright jersey, and I'm human-sized, on a 54-centimeter bike. Duh.

At least this near-miss was truly "an accident." He wasn't trying to hit me.

That's progress. The people I ride with on the South Shore have been spit on, cursed at, side-swiped, and pushed. We've had objects tossed at us - lit cigarettes, coffee, water bottles (full). Not to stereotype, but most of these threats come from guys in pickup trucks or other oversized vehicles.

I just have one question: Why are you so angry? We're out there obeying the rules, getting exercise, and saving gasoline. We've ridden in charity rides that benefit cancer, mental retardation, poor children, multiple sclerosis, and myriad other causes. We stay on the far right side of the lane. We never blow through traffic lights or stop signs. We're cautious because we know that you're out there in mega-ton vehicles, any one of which could flatten us in an instant.

But all too often, you're sitting on your horn, screaming at us and generally acting as if you own the road. Guess what? You don't. Under state law, bicycles are considered vehicles and have just as much right to the road as cars.

After Boston was named the most biker-unfriendly city in the country by Bicycling magazine, Mayor Thomas Menino went out of his way to promote the sport, even taking up riding himself. In a world-class irony, he got hit by a car.

Apparently, even some police officers don't realize that bicyclists have the right to be on the road. When my friend Dave rode every day during Bike-to-Work Week in June, he was approaching a small construction site - the right lane blocked off to cars; perfect for biking - when a cop told him to get off the road and onto the sidewalk.

Dave, a smart guy, knows that bikes belong on the road, not on the sidewalk. (Chapter 85, Section 11B of the Mass. statutes: Bikes may be ridden on the sidewalk only "outside business districts when necessary in the interest of safety"). There was absolutely no safety issue involved.

And when Dave, the nicest guy in the world, asked the officer why he wanted him on the sidewalk, the cop fell back on the time-honored parental response: "Because I said so."

Police officers would gain a lot of credibility from responsible bikers if they themselves learned the law - and applied it in cases of reckless driving that results in bikers getting hit. Speeding cars and drivers on cellphones are extremely dangerous for those of us on two wheels.

On the Cape recently, another friend was riding his bike when he heard a car behind him, music blaring. It was a white Jeep, top down, full of young men, one of whom reached out and over and gave my friend a push. The Jeep then sped off, its occupants howling with laughter. Ha. Ha.

"Fortunately, the push turned out to be more of a graze - his poor aim, my good fortune," says Adam. His bike wobbled off into the sand on the shoulder, but he managed to stay upright. He was lucky.

Steve Foley of Quincy wasn't. Two weeks ago, he and Jesus Vazquez had left Vazquez's home in Holbrook headed for a 30-mile loop through Pembroke, Hanover, and Hanson. They were in Pembroke when they heard engines coming up behind them, fast. The next thing Foley knew, he was hit.

"I went flying. I hit the ground and slid into the base of a mailbox," he says. He suffered a collapsed lung, eight broken ribs, a dislocated hip, fractures of both hip bones and a separated shoulder. He spent a week in South Shore Hospital. His Serotta bike was destroyed.

Vazquez, who was riding ahead of Foley, was also hit and suffered burns from a motorcycle's exhaust pipe.

That's right, a motorcycle. It seems that a car and a motorcyclist were drag-racing on the quiet country road when the latter barrelled into the bicycles. The motorcyclist got up, brushed himself off and refused medical treatment. He also failed to apologize to Foley and Vazquez. Fortunately, there were eyewitnesses, and Pembroke police cited him for reckless driving.

The bicycle riders were doing everything they could to be safe. They're experienced, careful riders who have ridden that same road a hundred times. "I've put 2,500 miles on my bike so far this year," says Foley, 49. "I ride a lot, and I know the risk goes up when you're on the road that often, so I try to be extra-cautious."

I divide dangerous drivers into two categories: angry or stupid. A combination of the two is the worst. Consider the guy - in the pickup truck, of course - who tried to run a group of four bikers off the road in Milton recently, zooming up behind them, accelerating, swerving right while blowing the horn. When the four riders caught up with him at the next stoplight, they surrounded him and demanded to know what the heck was his problem.

"You shouldn't be on the road," he yelled. Like I said, angry and stupid.

It's true that bikers can be stupid, too. About the stupidest thing I've seen - and I see it a lot - are bikers without helmets.

"Sometimes, bikers can be their own worst enemy," says Foley. "Sometimes, I ride with a group of people who don't ride single file, who wander all over the road."

But those who ride regularly know the drill: You wear a helmet. You obey all rules of the road. You protect your fellow riders with hand and voice signals. You're alert to traffic, dogs, and those on foot.

What both bikers and drivers need to do is to understand that neither one owns the road, that both sides must share it in order to ensure everyone's safety. In Rodney King's immortal words: "Why can't we all just get along?"

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