August 21, 2019
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When it comes to sharing the road, cyclists and motorists can be at odds

As president of Portland Velo Club, the state’s largest organized bicycle club, Ted Darling hears his share of bicycle-vehicle encounter stories. This week, for instance, a female member of the club sent him an email describing an unpleasant incident while riding her bicycle along Presumpscot Street in Portland.

“[The driver] was hauling a boat [and] yelling out the window at us,” the club member wrote. “When I caught up to him, he proceeded to call me plenty of derogatory names, then told me he was going to hit me.”

The incident ended peacefully, but Darling said he’s heard from other members saying they’ve had firecrackers thrown out of vehicles at them as they ride, they’ve been yelled at by motorists and had vehicles passing too close to them at high rates of speed — a practice cyclists often refer to as “being buzzed” by a car.

“How cyclists are treated on the road is variable [and] depends largely on where you are riding and the nature of the roads,” Darling said. “I think we at the Portland Velo Club have a heightened sense of riding safe, and we tend to ride in areas where bikes are commonly seen and drivers are aware we are out there.”

The club sponsors numerous group rides during the week, and Darling said each ride begins with a rundown on proper road cycling etiquette and Maine laws governing riding on public roadways. According to Maine law, bicycles must ride on the right-hand side of the road, with traffic; stay off sidewalks; and follow the rules of the road that also apply to motorized vehicles. For their part, drivers must give at least 3 feet between a cyclist and their vehicle when passing and maintain a safe distance from cyclists when coming upon them on the road.

“Yes, there are incidents that happen on the road all the time,” Jim Tasse, assistant director with the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, said. “A majority seem to come from the motorists wanting to get where they are going quickly and by being distracted.”

Drivers can become impatient with cyclists, Tasse said, even when the bicyclist is operating within the law; however, he stressed all it takes is one or two irresponsible riders blowing through stop signs, weaving in and out of vehicular traffic or flouting the rules of the road to give all riders a bad name.

“So the motorist assumes all cyclists are scofflaws when we are not,” he said. “That misunderstanding coupled with impatient drivers and with the new wildcards of so many drivers using electronic devices while driving can cause some incidents with cyclists having near misses or getting seriously hurt.”

According to data supplied by the Maine Department of Transportation, there were 1,044 roadway bicycle crashes in Maine between 2011 and 2015. Seven of those were fatal, with 978 causing personal injury to the cyclist.

In April, 34-year-old Joseph Lamothe died after being struck by a pickup while riding his bike on Route 196 in Lisbon. In May Rep. Mattie Daughtry was hit and injured while riding her bike in Brunswick when a vehicle turned into her path.

John Grenier owns Rainbow Bicycles in Lewiston and said road-riding conditions have turned some of his longtime roadies into trail riders.

“I’m seeing an older crowd of people getting into mountain [and] trail biking,” Grenier said. “They are telling me they feel safer off road.”

Grenier said he and fellow riders are noticing more close calls with vehicles than in years past.

“When we get passed [by cars] or pull up next to a car at an intersection, we are seeing a lot of drivers texting or doing things with their phones, and that makes a lot of us riders uncomfortable.”

At the same time, Grenier said cyclists seem to be getting honked at and yelled at more these days by drivers “who seem to have a short fuse,” he said.

“We keep hearing over and over that we should not be on the road,” Grenier said. “And I agree, we should not be if we are not following the law, but we do have every right to share that road in a lawful way.”

Grenier believes there is a perception on the part of some drivers that cyclists are out on the road “playing” on their “toys,” when in fact many are using their bikes as a major form of transportation to and from work or school.

“When some drivers see us out there wearing our lycra, they assume we are just out to have fun and how dare we slow them down,” Grenier said. “Some of them seem to want to teach us a lesson by aggressively passing us — every cyclist has a story to tell about that.”

Education for cyclists and motorists is the key to solving many of the issues, Grenier said.

“I think we are making progress,” Brian Allenby, communications director with the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, said. “But it just takes one bad cyclist to change motorists’ opinions of all cyclists.”

Through ongoing projects such as the “Share the Road” campaign, community-based educational outreach programs and ongoing advocacy with state and municipal governments, the coalition is working to make Maine a bike-friendly state.

“Maine is a great cycling destination,” Allenby said. “The coalition is always working to make sure the roads are safe and that communities are the department of transportation are always thinking about bicycling when planning roads.”

Cycling can also have a major economic impact, Allenby said. In September hundreds of cyclists will take part in the annual BikeMaine, covering hundreds of miles in Washington County, where they will lodge, eat and spend money shopping.

“When you put facts like that out in front of people and what cycling can mean for the state, that has a huge positive impact for the sport,” Allenby said. “One of our biggest tasks right now is getting that data out there.”

From what he can see, Washington County drivers seem to be on board with the upcoming ride.

“When our bike team was out there previewing the route, they said they had never been waved to by so many people driving cars,” he said. “The people were really friendly and kind.”

Allenby said he, too, has seen his share of aggressive drivers during his 12-mile commute to work through Portland, but they’re rare and often seem to cause embarrassment on the part of the driver when they make eye contact.

“Distracted driving is my biggest concern,” he said. “If you are aware of your surroundings as a cyclist and practice legal, thoughtful riding, you can take the danger out of most situations, [but] those distracted drivers really do concern me.”

Darling agrees but said most of the drivers he comes in contact with seem to be aware of cyclists on the road.

“I think there definitely is a heightened level of safety awareness between cyclists and drivers on most of the roads,” he said. “But both need to be respectful of the other.”

Tasse believes the education efforts on the part of the coalition are helping and that there is room for cyclists and drivers on Maine’s roads.

“I think we are in a holding pattern when it comes to safety,” he said. “Mainers are good folks who understand the people out there riding bikes are their friends, neighbors, kids’ principals or their doctors.”

 



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