Sharing the road: Recent Portland run-in and Hanover fatality test thin line between bicyclists and motorists in Maine
PORTLAND, Maine — Bicyclist James Riley has pedaled thousands of miles, endured innumerable falls as a mountain bike racer and survived two collisions with cars.
But he never worried until now.
On June 3, Riley was riding home from work in Brunswick when he was bullied on the narrow Martin’s Point Bridge separating Falmouth and Portland with a blaring horn and a looming truck grille that, he says, closed to within inches of hitting him.
“It was close enough that I could actually feel the vehicle,” Riley said. “I was looking over the guardrail thinking, ‘Geez, I might have to go into the river.'”
He survived unhurt, but only after riding precariously close to a bridge railing and jumping storm drains, he said. Then, he met the truck’s driver, James Harkins.
A few minutes after the encounter on the bridge, Riley happened onto Harkins’ truck parked on a nearby street, he said. When he took a photo of the license plate, Harkins yelled at him and climbed into his truck.
Riley caught part of it on video and posted it on the Internet. The video shows Harkins profanely insulting the cyclist as Harkins motors past.
“You’re probably gay, too, aren’t you?” Harkins added as he drove away.
The next morning, Riley left for his morning commute to work 90 minutes early, worried that Harkins or another driver might be waiting.
However, Harkins, a deep-sea fishing captain and boat hauler, in a later interview with the Sun Journal said Riley had nothing to fear from him.
Harkins insisted that he never blared his horn or drove his Ford F-550 to within less than 3 feet of the cyclist, which would have violated the law. He said he safely passed Riley and was later ambushed by the smartphone-wielding cyclist.
“I was intimidated by this cyclist,” he said. “He followed me. He approached me. He got in my face.”
The gay comment came from anger, Harkins said.
“Anger is the wind that blows out the candle of reason,” he said.
Both men say they were trying to share the road.
Changing the law
It’s the kind of incident that happens too often in a state with aging, narrow roads, too many erratic bicyclists and impatient drivers.
New legislation aimed at clarifying the rules of Maine’s roads was passed earlier this month, explicitly giving cyclists the right to steer into travel lanes if they deem the shoulder unsafe. The law, which takes effect in September, also explicitly requires drivers to wait for nearby cyclists to pass before turning, if turning would interfere with the cyclist’s safety or legal passage.
In addition, the law establishes that any collision between a bicycle and a motor vehicle is apparent or “prima facie” evidence of a violation of the law that limits passing vehicles from closing to less than 3 feet of a bicyclist or roller skier. However, law enforcement officials say that provision will have little effect on how such collisions are enforced. An investigation must follow any collision that causes either $1,000 in damage or injury.
“We’re going to do an investigation because that’s what we’re trained to do,” said Lt. Brian Scott, the commanding officer of the Maine State Police Traffic Safety Unit. “We’re going to try to determine what happened. And if a bicyclist happened to quickly swerve out in front of a car, we’re not going to say that is a violation of the 3-foot rule.”
One day after the law was enacted, on June 14, a cyclist was killed in Hanover.
David LeClair, 23, of Watertown, Mass., died while participating in the charity Trek Across Maine. He was killed when he fell into the path of a passing truck, said Lt. Walter Grzyb of the Maine State Police.
A police investigation of the accident is ongoing.
“Through our investigation, we discovered that there was, in fact, 3 feet that was given, but because David LeClair lost his balance for whatever reason, he ended up falling and having contact with that truck,” Grzyb said. No charges are planned against the driver.
It was the first Maine bicycle fatality in at least six years.
Nationally, bicyclists account for about 2 percent of traffic fatalities. In 2011, there were 32,367 traffic deaths. Of those, 677 were using pedal-powered vehicles, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
‘A billboard on your back’
Locally, there have been few injuries among cyclists.
During the three-year period from 2008 through 2010, 49 car-cyclist crashes occurred in Lewiston, Auburn, Lisbon and Sabattus, according to numbers compiled by the Androscoggin Transportation Resource Center. Of those 49 crashes, two of the collisions resulted in injuries serious enough to incapacitate the cyclist.
Despite the seemingly low number of injuries, many cyclists say they are sometimes nervous, tense or plain-old scared when riding on local roads.
Busy local streets — such as Russell Street in Lewiston or Center Street in Auburn — can be frightening, said John Grenier, a cyclist and the owner of Rainbow Bicycle in Lewiston. For sections of those roads, there is no shoulder and sometimes nowhere to go if car and truck traffic bears down.
“There is no place for bicycles,” Grenier said. “None. There’s not even a foot. So when you ride there, the car has no choice but to put two tires in the other lane, if they want to not hit you.”
Cyclists must choose between doing the legal thing — they have the legal right to use the road, too — or hop onto a sidewalk if one is available. However, cyclists are supposed to stay off the sidewalk, ride with traffic and obey the lights, signs and other rules of the road.
There is little enforcement of the rules as they apply to bicyclists, said Lewiston Police Sgt. Robert Ullrich, one of several officers who patrol the city on bicycles.
“I would bet if you went to the Police Department to look for how many citations were written to bicyclists, if you found one or two you’d be lucky,” he said. Part of the reason is staffing. There are too few officers. Another part is allowing cyclists to do what they need to do to feel safe. Like Grenier, he believes some roads in the city can be intimidating for a cyclist.
However, Ullrich said he usually feels safe. After all, he’s typically in uniform.
“You have a billboard on your back that says, ‘Police,'” he said.
The Bicycle Coalition of Maine, which spearheaded the recent changes in the law, also is working to share the road.
“For us, it’s not about who has power and who has more power or less power,” coalition spokesman Brian Allenby said. “It’s about how we can all use the roadway together.”
Maine law is clear that bicycles have the right to use the roadway, he said. “For the most part, cyclists operate safely. They do follow the rules of the road. The ones who don’t, in the same way as motorists who don’t follow the rules, are very obvious because they’re the ones blowing through stop signs. They’re the ones riding in the opposite direction on one-way streets.”
The coalition welcomes enforcement for both motorists and cyclists, he said.
“While I certainly don’t want to encourage undue scrutiny on cyclists, nor do I want to make police departments feel like they need to devote lots of resources to it, we absolutely want to make sure that cyclists are following the rules,” Allenby said.
A new coalition — created by Harkins following the incident with Riley — is also pledging to call for enforcement and changes in Maine law.
He calls it the Coalition of Motorists for Safe Cycling.
“We need to completely change our thinking as to how we look at cyclists on the road,” said Harkins, who says he began the initiative in the days after his confrontation with Riley.
After the video of his outburst circulated, he said he lost all of the sponsors for his public-access TV show, “Atlantic Adventures.” Other sponsors have come forward, though, along with new customers, he said.
Harkins said he has received thousands of emails and phone calls from people who are angry at cyclists.
Harkins calls them “two-wheeled thugs.”
“They’re a very organized group of tech-savvy individuals who are poised to attack anyone who dares to speak out or has anything negative to say about the cycling community,” Harkins said.
Bicycles are “still vehicles on the road” and deserve to be controlled that way, he said.
He plans to lobby for a list of changes that would include forcing cyclists to register their bikes and undergo annual mechanical inspections. He would also subject cyclists to prosecution for operating under the influence and distracted cycling. Like car owners, they should also be required to buy liability insurance, he said.
Harkins hopes to announce a formal agenda with his partners during a news conference in the next few weeks, he said.
“We want positive change for both cyclists and motorists,” he said.
Riley said he is skeptical of Harkins.
“He’s a really hot-headed individual,” Riley said. “I actually feel really bad for him because I wonder if he’s the type who fights something until he’s so red in the face that he can never feel like he can find common [ground]. We’re both guys. We both understand that there are instances where we, you know, make mistakes in life.”
Cyclists here to stay
Grenier believes the environment on the road is improving.
“I feel like I had more motorist confrontations 15 years ago than I do now,” he said. “I think people are more tolerant now. They’ve seen more cyclists. I think the tide is turning. I think we just need more and more conversations about it.”
The number of cyclists is growing, enthusiasts say. Local groups such as the 180-member Maine Cycling Club are thriving.
“A lot of them are influential in the community, business people and business owners, so they’re vocal about it,” Grenier said.
Folks have come to realize that a short wait for someone on a bicycle is no sacrifice, he said.
“It happens in foreign countries. If you go to Europe, they share the road. It’s not a problem,” he said. “You convert some of the motorists to seeing, ‘You know what, you’re right. I really don’t have to wait long.’ Where are you going in such a hurry that you can’t delay your trip by 10 seconds?
“There’s going to be more cycling, plain and simple,” he said. “Cyclists aren’t going away. Cars certainly aren’t going away. So, what do we do? We have some bad actors who drive cars and we have some bad actors who drive bikes. I think the percentages are about the same.”