Everyone in town is talking about an article written by a New York City cyclist in the New York Times this past weekend.
Entitled The Wild Bunch, and written by Robert Sullivan, the article says that cyclists and motorists are at each other's throats, and that pedestrians in particular "hate" us.
The mail--mostly against-- has been furious this morning. Sullivan himself is not even a known entity in the cycling advocacy world, and his words although passionate seem more geared to get attention than to ring true. I think "hate" is a very harsh word for any relationships between the multi-users.
More likely drivers know that they can do as they like because the traffic and criminal laws favor them. In most instances, the death of a cyclist is rarely even met with a traffic ticket--and for legal reasons police cannot issue tickets except under special circumstances.
Accidents with motorists that result in a cyclist's or pedestrian's death may not be recorded by police unless a follow up report is made with the hospital they are sent to, said one New Jersey department of transportation official off the record.
Such lack of follow up was also documented by Charlie Komanoff, co-founder of Right of Way in his 1999 study of more than 1,000 fatal cyclist and pedestrian accidents over a period of years in New York City. In many cases, the drivers were not even ticketed, his study said.
Therefore the better characterization is, "off the radar screen."
Case in point: this weekend was exemplary for savage behavior of motorists against cyclists who were riding in the so-called safe zones of roadways, the shoulder outside of New York, in the New York to Nyack corridor along Rte. 9W and elsewhere in New Jersey.
No less than four cars came speeding by me at 60 mph in a 40 mph area, passing with only 2 feet, an act called "buzzing". I received numerous accounts detailing similar buzzing from other cyclists, some of it mere miles away from the last fatal accident of a cyclist by a motorist driving on the white line.
Yesterday the motorists seemed to be doing it on purpose. Probably because legally they can. New Jersey law is not specific about the number of feet they are required to give cyclists when passing. At the time I passed, a police patrol was sorely needed, one specifically hidden from view to watch the scofflaws passing within inches of my head.
I did call Capt. Beckman who heads the operations in Alpine, NJ, and according to one cyclist he did send a car there. Beckman confirmed that he personally came to the location and watched but did not observe any further buzzing by motorists. He also noted that another police vehicle was parked nearby when he arrived.
But cyclists still complained that in other areas of the 9W roadway, north of the Alpine intersection, they experienced motorists coming too close, including Richard Conroy who was riding a tandem with a friend.
Reports from cyclists riding in other sections of northern New Jersey, further west and closer to the Franklin Lakes area, said they experienced an abnormal level of buzzing. "It was really scary," said Jen Laurita, who is a board member of the recently formed New Jersey Bicycle Coalition. That organization will be spending more time working on legislation and other issues that affect cycling safety in northern New Jersey.
Though some cyclists have also recently said they were targeted for passing through red lights in the Alpine area, the local police department has defended its record in the area, pointing to not only their record in assisting cyclists, but also in enforcing traffic regulations and even improving safety by asking for changes from the state legislature.
Beckman who was instrumental in helping the Bergen County Prosecutor's office investigate the death of Camille Savoy in November of last year said that his department patrolled a combined total of 102,729 miles, investigated 72 motor vehicle crashes and issued 1,293 summons in 2008.
He also noted that they continue to be involved in the planning and facilitation of the yearly MS Bike Run that traverses Route 9w every fall. In addition to the assistance of Savoy, Beckman noted that two Alpine Police Officers saved the life of a cyclist following a heart attack by use of an external defibrillator and emergency CPR.
"The Alpine Police Department, along with its governing body, petitioned the New Jersey Department of Transportation to lower the speed limit from 50 mph to 40 mph and eliminated many of the passing zones," added Beckman.
Unfortunately, that kind of help from the police department is slower or perhaps more complex in New York City, according to Sullivan.
Sullivan's recommendations include one that says cyclists should at least engage in what has been called the Idaho Stop, which means stop at the red light, look and go.
But the Idaho Stop raises a number of challenges should the cyclist be hit--they are not likely to get any legal coverage if they go through a red light.
Other cities that really encourage cycling have contiguous bike lanes that weave between roads and bikeways, such as in towns in Switzerland, and there, cyclists are not required to stop at red lights except when the structure of the bike lane intersects with a big road.
Also, NYC has installed a couple of bike first lights that allow cyclist to go first when the light turns, while traffic has to wait. That's a good idea.
But even better is to continue to transform portions of major avenues into bike only lanes, such as Fifth Avenue, or Broadway. This would make stopping and going, which is not easy for cyclists, less of a necessity.