Thursday, April 24, 2008

Bicyclists pedal adult safety in daylong program

Times Argus
April 20, 2008

MONTPELIER – Bicyclists pedaling on Vermont's roads is a sure a sign of spring. But as more bikers ride, runners jog and motorists jockey for the same space, it becomes crucial that they all play by the same rules: Of the 750 deaths of bicyclists in the United States each year, 96 percent are the result of crashes with motor vehicles.

Saturday, the Vermont Bicycle and Pedestrian Coalition sponsored a nine-hour "Road I" bike education program designed by the League of American Bicyclists to improve riders' knowledge and safety skills. A booklet and video illustrated the steps in crossing multiple lanes, the proper sequence of moves for making turns and the consequences of mistakes such as riding too close to parked cars. (A suddenly opened door can knock a rider into a lane of traffic.)

The most important precaution bikers can take, said Bob Atchinson, who taught the course with Carl Etnier, is to wear a helmet, preferably a hard shell helmet with a polystyrene liner. Atchinson noted that 85 percent of the bikers who died in accidents weren't wearing one. Another safety precaution is mastering bike-handling skills, such as making instant turns to avoid being hit.

More than a third of collisions with vehicles involve turns, Atchinson noted. Another 9 percent involve failure by bicyclists to yield at driveways. Eight percent are the result of bicyclists running stop signs and another eight percent of motorists running stop signs.

There was no disagreement that bicyclists should stop at red lights, but what constitutes running a stop sign was a matter of debate.

Atchinson said whether or not a bicyclist should stop at a stop sign rather than just slow down depends on whether there is likely to be turning traffic at the intersection. If so, the rider should make a "foot-down" stop, he said. "If it's not going to be, if you can come to a stop and balance the bike enough to look left, look right, look back to the left and signal, …I don't particularly think of it as a violation of the law."

Etnier added, "The first message we want to get out is all traffic rules, including stop signs, should be obeyed. (The video) said all cyclists should obey stop signs, but they also said the way you obey a stop sign is not necessarily by stopping completely – the Texas rolling stop, we called it where I grew up."

He noted that because bicyclists are not shut inside a vehicle, they can see and hear what's going on around them much better than drivers. "Coming to a stop sign and going through it really slowly – only a few miles per hour – gives you as much time to judge what's happening in the intersection as a car driver coming and stopping and going."

Under current Vermont law, bicyclists are not allowed to pass other vehicles on their right, although Atchinson admitted, "I might be tempted sometimes to do that. If there's gridlock and the cars are stopped, it's a fine line. A bicycle is a very mobile thing. I'm feeling torn because sometimes I feel like this is good to illustrate to people if you were on a bicycle now you wouldn't be sitting in traffic in single occupancy vehicles."

Etnier noted that the Vermont Bicycle and Pedestrian Coalition is lobbying to change the law. H577, the "vulnerable users" bill coming up for a vote in the Senate, would make it legal for bicyclists to pass cars on the right.

The video provided a dramatic illustration of how bicyclists look to drivers at night. Standard equipment reflectors provided surprisingly little warning that anything was in the road or helped distinguish a bicycle from a mailbox, but headlights and rear amber SAE reflectors made the riders much more visible.

After a lunch of soup and whole-grain bread, the group took off to test their skills turning in traffic, crossing railroad tracks and dodging rocks.

"You think, 'Road I, it's just a real beginner thing,' but there's so much information, there's an awful lot that you learn – there are things that you really don't know," said Chery Cerise, who had come from Winooski to take the course. "If they do Road II, I've already told them I'm coming."

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