Cyclists say they feel less safe on Chattanooga roadways

Cyclists say they feel less safe on Chattanooga roadways

July 23rd, 2009 by Jacqueline Koch in News

It's been four months since cyclist David Meek died after being struck by a vehicle on Ashland Terrace, and instead of spawning more awareness among motorists and cyclists, things have gotten worse, local cyclists say.

"I think the biggest problem is a lot of motorists and a lot of cyclists are ignorant of the laws," said Robert Bain, the service manager at East Ridge Bicycle. "A lot of motorists feel as though cyclists shouldn't be on the road."

Mr. Bain said he was among more than 30 cyclists who were shot at while participating in a group ride July 13 on Ooltewah-Ringgold Road. A motorist yelled expletives at the cyclists as he drove past them, then pulled into a driveway, got a gun and fired a shot at the group, Mr. Bain said.

The incident was reported to the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office but, as far as he knows, no charges have been filed, Mr. Bain said.

An employee in the sheriff's office records division said Wednesday that he was not authorized to provide information about the incident and his supervisor was unavailable.

Such conflict is not unusual, cyclists said. They believe more cyclist-vehicle accidents or near-accidents are occurring than are being reported, they say.

"You'll have motorists yell at cyclists, they'll throw stuff at them," Mr. Bain said. "They'll purposely drive as close as they can to you and try to run you off the road. That's very common."

But plenty of cyclists also fail to follow rules of the road.

"There are cyclists that need to be more courteous," said Phil Gagliardi, a cyclist and motorist in the Chattanooga area. "They need to get farther out of the road, in my opinion."

This week at least two cycling accidents have gained publicity.

On Monday, a former Baylor School track coach and well-known cyclist was struck by a vehicle on Highway 41. Van Townsend was riding with another man when the two briefly were side-by-side and a vehicle in the passing lane suddenly came into the far right lane, striking Mr. Townsend and breaking his leg but causing no life-threatening injuries, officials said.

On Tuesday, a 14-year-old cyclist was struck by a vehicle on Belvoir Avenue and was listed in serious condition at Erlanger hospital. East Ridge police said the cyclist failed to yield at a stop sign at Belvoir and Woodard Circle when he was struck. No charges were filed in the incident, police said.

Whether the number of cyclist-vehicle accidents has increased is unknown, because the Chattanooga Police Department doesn't have a database to input types of vehicles or crash information. Since June 2008, the city has had a fatal cyclist accident in March 2009 and another in May 2009, according to the police department.

But Sgt. Al Tallant, who oversees the department's traffic division, said he hasn't heard from patrol officers that any more cyclist accidents than normal are occurring. Usually, when a large number of unusual events occur with regard to traffic, officers will tell him about it, he said.

"As far as saying there's an increase, I haven't seen it," Sgt. Tallant said. "There's nothing to indicate that there are more incidents."

Accidents may appear to increase because cyclists are more vigilant about reporting them, cyclists said.

"I think that we're more inclined to call it in now because we're encouraged to," cyclist Ed Rusk said. "We were actually encouraged (to call) by police department representatives (who said) that they can't help us if they don't know about it."

Some say the answer lies in patience and understanding on the part of both motorists and cyclists. River City Bicycle owner Robert Driver said his temper flared once when a vehicle driver did something wrong while he was cycling. But he realized his mistake, raced to the vehicle and apologized to the driver.

He, too, thinks more cyclist-motorist incidents are occurring, though that could be attributed to heightened sensitivity about the issue, he said.

"Cyclists know that the rules of the road apply to them," Mr. Driver said. "And we work hard on trying to educate each other to abide by those rules so we can continue to make our sport safer and to help the motorists out there to not hit us."

But some fear Chattanooga will lose its bike-friendly status if things don't improve.

"That's going to be a domino effect of less people being attracted to Chattanooga, and it's going to get a reputation of being a violent place," Mr. Rusk said.