published Tuesday, May 7th, 2013

Is it safe to bike the mountains?

Poll
Should the 3 State, 3 Mountain Challenge have been canceled?

More than 2,000 bicyclists came to Chattanooga this past weekend to bike three mountains.

It sounds like fun, but it wasn't.

One bicyclist died, and the life of the person whose car the cyclist struck on the rain-slicked Ochs Highway is likely forever altered.

Bicycling is the new cool. It's a sign of vigor and enthusiasm for life. It has it own recent state law that says drivers must give a bicyclist at least three feet distance.

But then there's this elephant in the living room of Chattanooga — the city of mountains and valleys seemingly perfect for that outdoorsy, healthy cyclist-kind of happy picture. The elephant is safety, or the lack of common-sense understanding of safety that no one wants to talk about.

It's just not safe to bicycle on steep mountain roads. It's not safe for the cyclists, and it's not safe for the people who have to drive those mountain roads to get to home and work. These roads are barely adequate for the traffic they bear, let alone for one or more cyclists suddenly right in front of drivers who've just rounded a curve and have nowhere else to go but into a lane of oncoming traffic.

Something has to give.

Less than a year ago, this newspaper ran a story stating "Biking is a bit safer in Tennessee and Georgia as of this morning, assuming two new state laws keep motorists away from cyclists."

The story went on to say legislation in Tennessee strengthened penalties against drivers who hit pedestrians or cyclists. Instead of facing 30 days in jail and a $50 fine, drivers judged guilty of "failure to exercise due care" face up to a $500 fine and 11 months and 29 days in jail and the loss of a driver's license for causing death.

Across the state line, Georgia drivers suddenly faced the same mandate to keep least three feet between themselves and cyclists.

Keeping good space — even more than three feet — between a vehicle and a bicycle is a good common-sense rule, but it doesn't work on a curvy, two-lane (or even three-lane) mountain road where neither driver nor biker knows the other is there until the three-feet buffer is merely inches.

If the lane is too narrow for the motorist to safely pass the bicyclist — while still allowing the cyclist a safe buffer-distance — the motorist has to wait behind for a safe chance to pass. And the motorist has to pray not to be rear-ended in the meantime.

This issue needs rethinking. A one-size-fits-all bicycle safety law may not work on our mountain roads.

Since 2003, at least five bicyclists have died in bike/car collisions in the Chattanooga region, according to newspaper archives.

The cyclists lost their lives, but the drivers and their families were not unscathed. Some were prosecuted, and whether they went to court or not, they deal with the nightmares that all fatal accidents bring.

Saturday's unfortunate accident was not the vehicle driver's fault, according to police. The cyclist lost control riding downhill on Lookout Mountain's Ochs Highway and went into the path of a car traveling uphill, said Chattanooga police spokesman Nathan Hartwig. The cyclist, a Florida man, died at the scene.

Yes, bicycling is fun and usually healthy, but it's not a God-given right on a highway. And especially not in inclement weather on a curvy mountain road.

Was any thought given to canceling this event, knowing that a deluge of rain was forecast days in advance? Couldn't the roads have been temporarily closed or detoured for the event?

Perhaps mountain cycling enthusiasts need to do what horseback riders and four-wheelers have had to do: build their own routes away from car and truck traffic.

There's a reason bicycling is not legal on an Interstate highway, even though on Interstate highways cyclists would have a wide shoulder available.

The reason is simple. Safety. On Interstate highways, speed makes cycling unsafe for everybody. Well, on mountains, curves, switchbacks and narrow lanes make cycling unsafe for everybody.

Yes, cyclists have a right to ride. But we all have a right to safety.

Bicycles on roads that are dubiously safe even for cars, stretch that right to the limit.

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