Cyclists, drivers at odds over rules of the road

October 28, 2008

By Jon Savelle

Jamie Longan cycles on a Newport Way Northwest sidewalk for safety during an afternoon commute from his job in south Issaquah to the state Route 900 Park & Ride lot for a bus ride home to Redmond. 'It'd be nice if we had more bike lanes,' he said. Photo by Greg Farrar.

Jamie Longan cycles on a Newport Way Northwest sidewalk for safety during an afternoon commute from his job in south Issaquah to the state Route 900 Park & Ride lot for a bus ride home to Redmond.

Early in September, Barbara Shelton was riding her bicycle down Mountain Park Boulevard when something happened that made her wonder about bicycling in Issaquah.

After Shelton had sped downhill at automotive speed, using the right side of the traffic lane, a woman pulled up next to her in a car and screamed: “Two feet! You can’t be more than two feet from the edge of the road!”

When Shelton explained that the law allows a cyclist to use the lane as necessary, the woman insisted otherwise — adding that her husband was a police officer, and she knew the rules.

For the record, state law is on Shelton’s side. But the incident gave her pause. 

“That was astounding,” she said. “People get angry that you’re on the street, but to have people with such misinformation was new to me. If it’s a common misunderstanding, then we need to correct that.”

During the last six months, just three bicycle-related incidents were reported to police, said Chief Paul Ayers. Each involved a collision between a cyclist and a car, and none caused injuries.

“For the number of bikes in town, and the number of cars, we just don’t get that many,” Ayers said. “You and I, driving around, see bikes and cars not showing common sense. But overall, they do a pretty good job.” 

Even so, for regular riders like Shelton and downtown resident Bob Miller, the problem of riding among motor vehicles is a serious one. 

In recent months, Miller has offered instruction in safe urban cycling, including guided rides through Issaquah. Turnout has been disappointing, but there remains much to be learned by drivers and cyclists alike. 

“Bikes have a unique situation,” Miller said. “Bikes are permitted on the roadway, but common sense tells you that you have no protection from a car.”

He urges riders to be courteous, predictable, visible and assertive. Trying to squeeze to the side, out of traffic, is not a good idea. 

“Safety manuals tell the rider that the safest place is one-third of the lane width from the curb on the right,” Miller said. 

This position makes the rider more visible, and it avoids the all-too-common occurrence of car doors being opened into the paths of cyclists. 

“It forces the car to deal with you as an occupant of the road,” Miller continued. “If you are too far to the right, they will brush past you.”

On the other hand, riders who venture too far into the lane force passing motorists into oncoming traffic. 

For novice riders, or those who just don’t feel comfortable in traffic, Miller suggests finding quieter, easier routes. He calls them an “alternate universe,” one that serves the needs of bicyclists while minimizing conflicts. 

Yet, conflicts do occur. Over many years and many thousands of miles ridden, Miller said he has had things thrown at him, had drivers try to run him off the road, had his parentage disputed and been called various body parts. 

“Those are ignorant, impatient people,” he said. “I ignore them. And when I see someone who is courteous, I always acknowledge it. However, sometimes I have been known to give one-finger salutes to people who are discourteous.”

At the same time, there are plenty of discourteous cyclists. A common irritant is riders’ habit of going to the front of a queue of cars at an intersection, then causing them delay when the light turns green. The situation can repeat itself in one intersection after another. 

Miller said he once discussed this very problem with a truck driver at a gas station.

“It really ticks me off when I have to pass you twice,” the man told him. “The first time, I’m courteous. The second time, I’m a little bit perturbed. And if I have to do it a third time, I really don’t care about you.”

What it really comes down to is common sense, Miller said. Cyclists should obey traffic laws, shouldn’t antagonize drivers and should choose routes carefully. 

And one more thing

“Always wear a helmet,” he said. “You only get one brain.” 

Reach Reporter Jon Savelle at 392-6434, ext. 234, or jsavelle@isspress.com.

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