A lethal threat to bicyclists

A lethal threat to bicyclists

March 10th, 2009 in Opinion Times

David Meek, a past president of the Chattanooga Bicycle Club and among the most veteran, experienced riders in the city, was killed while riding his bicycle along Ashland Terrace early Friday morning. He suffered the fate that every bicyclist sadly must recognize is still a lethal possibility in a community whose motorists are notoriously negligent of safely sharing the road with bicyclists. In Mr. Meek's case, a truck driver passed too close to him - so close that part of his truck apparently hooked a saddle bag on Mr. Meek's bicycle, throwing the rider off his bicycle and into the path of traffic.

Mr. Meek, 52, a business owner whose survivors include a wife, daughter and son, is not the first bicycle rider to be killed here as the result of being struck or run off the road by the driver of motor vehicle. Drivers who are careless or maliciously reckless of bicyclists' safety are an all-too-common hazard, as injuries and road deaths of bicycle riders readily attest.

Given the rising number of bicyclists here and the unyielding, sometimes malevolent, carelessness of motorists to the safety of cyclists, it is well past time to counter than trend. Public officials should do so by taking more aggressive steps to promote and protect the safety of bicyclists.

Contrary to the ludicrous notion of some motorists, bicycles are legal vehicles for all roads except restricted Interstate highways. Drivers of motor vehicles are legally and morally bound to give bicyclists the right of way in their lane and to observe safe, wide margins when attempting to pass them. They may legally and safely pass only when they can clearly see that there is no oncoming traffic.

Yet some drivers wrongly profess to believe - as some letters to the editor have shown over the years - that bicyclists have no right to obstruct a driver's use of roads, and no right at all to expect that they should be passed safely.

Indeed, many of us, as drivers, frequently see other drivers actually passing bicyclists without observing a three-foot-safety margin for the cyclists. Many even attempt to pass in blind curves, virtually assuring that if an oncoming car appears, the passing driver will reflexively steer right, killing the cyclist on the right - or running the cyclist off the road into injurious and possibly fatal hazards.

A remedy for such malicious disregard should hinge on enforcement of the law against such potentially lethal driving, and legal and public education policies. Local and state transportation agencies and governments should consider a range of changes to improve driver awareness and road safety for cyclists, and pedestrians, as well.

A focused public information campaign, particularly in urban areas where bicycling has become a widely popular method of alternative transportation and recreation, should aggressively inform drivers of their legal obligation for safe driving when they encounter bicyclists.

State and municipal governments should consider both tighter driver safety laws and penalties, and also broader efforts to establish designated and more clearly delineated bicycle lanes that contain barriers to vehicular traffic.

Chattanooga and other area municipalities in Hamilton County and North Georgia completed in 2002 an urban area bicycle facilities master plan for 2030 that outlined future bicycle (and pedestrian) routes under three levels of priorities. Some streets with bicycle lanes marked by white paint barely qualify as protected lanes, however. Drivers routinely park in the bicycle lanes in some areas, and cars often squeeze them, frustrating the promise of safety and forcing bicyclists into dangerous circumstances.

In fact, planning and marking bicycle lanes - and pedestrian ways and sidewalks - remains a far cry from developing a comprehensive user-friendly system of bike-and-pedestrian ways on common small streets. It also hasn't much dented the problem of creating a necessary pattern of safe road-sharing etiquette with motorists who recognize the moral and legal imperative to protect bicycle and pedestrian traffic around them. Until safety is improved, the community may not call itself "bike friendly."