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Road Rules 

The scars on Kate Dunning's knees run about six inches from her kneecap to the top of her shin. She is neither shy nor self-conscious

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The scars on Kate Dunning's knees run about six inches from her kneecap to the top of her shin. She is neither shy nor self-conscious about the marks, which are indicative of 17 days in the hospital, three months in a wheelchair, six months of missed work, and four surgeries.

The scars are most precisely a reminder of July 2, 2002 - the day Dunning was hit by a car while riding her road bicycle through Tumalo on Highway 20. The Ford sports utility vehicle crossed the highway, its teenage driver never seeing Dunning until it was too late to stop. Both of her legs were broken (including her left femur) and to this day she still can't run, which was once a passion of hers.


Whether it's on the front page of the Oregonian or in the form of impassioned blog posts on the Source website, the discussion of "sharing the road" between cyclists and motorists has been nearly ubiquitous in recent months. And if Dunning's experience proves anything, it's the seriousness of what can happen when bicycles and cars fail to coexist on Central Oregon roads.

"This was kind of a freak accident, the guy was looking to cross a busy highway and just didn't see me," said Dunning, an accountant who's lived in Bend for 12 years. She continues, however, to say that although she's returned to her bike, she still is continually baffled by cyclists who ignore even the most basic riding etiquette. She is equally miffed by the faction of motorists who seem to have it out for cyclists, including the youngsters who once tossed a Coke with ice at her as they drove past.

 


Mike McMackin is the general manager of Hutch's Bicycles, the popular Bend bike shop, and doesn't beat around the bush when discussing the stigma surrounding road cyclists, especially those riding in group outings.

"We earned this reputation," McMackin says sharply. "Sure there's the one bad apple card, but that gets used far too often," he says.

McMackin has been riding in Central Oregon for 25 years - since the days when men in pickup trucks would spy his riding gear and tell him, "You better get back to wherever you came from." One might expect him to hold a high-minded view of his fellow athletes, blaming motorists for any perceived conflict. This is hardly the case.

"We all know the rules of the road, so why are we exempt when we hop on our bikes? If you're an adult and you hold a drivers license, you should know the rules," he says.

A few weeks ago, a group from Hutch's was out on a group ride on a highway route where a vehicle accident occurred. A sheriff's deputy was under the impression that the Hutch's group had caused the accident and followed the group, and when they eventually ran through a stop sign, the deputy stopped them. While Hutch's riders were ultimately cleared of causing the accident, McMackin didn't waste any time in tackling the issue.

He sent an e-mail to his entire team, a portion of which appeared in the Outdoors column of the Source. In the sternly worded message, McMackin told the riders that if they couldn't refrain from blowing stop signs and riding more than two riders abreast, they would be removed from the team roster. Not a single rider responded negatively to the message.

While the issue between recreational cyclists on semi-rural roads seems to be the crux of the motorist/cyclist conflict in Central Oregon, issues involving cars and bicycle commuters have also arisen with more frequency. This pales in comparison to the perceived battle in Portland where a cyclist attacked a motorist with a bike who chided the him for running a red light or the motorist who drove two city blocks with a cyclist clinging to his hood (which was caught on video).

Steve Esselstyn, the Bend Police Department's community liaison, says that sort of insanity has yet to be seen in Bend, but that there has certainly been an influx of complaints by both motorists and cyclists this spring and summer.

"With people trying to save gas, you're of course going to see more bikes on the road and people are becoming more aware of them," Esselstyn says.

While talking on the phone, Esselstyn looks out the window from his office and says, "There's a guy riding down the road on the wrong side of the street out my window right now."

And this probably isn't surprising to anyone who's driven, walked or biked around Bend this summer. Cyclists, many of them seemingly new to commuting by human power, can be seen on all sides of town, sometimes breaking even the most obvious of laws, like stopping at a stop sign or riding in single file in the bike lane, according to Esselstyn, who says there are also motorists who don't know how to (or want to) acommodate cyclists on the road. When asked if the majority of complaints come from outraged cyclists or frustrated motorists, Esselstyn says motorists probably have the edge, but he suspects this is due to the fact that they "inevitably have a cell phone on them."

"With the cyclists, they probably give the single finger salute and are on their way," he says jokingly.

As expected, more bicycles on the road means more chances of bicycle-related accidents. According to Esselstyn, an elderly man died after he was struck by a car on Purcell Boulevard, on Bend's Eastside at the beginning of this month. Only a matter of days later, a cyclist riding the wrong way down Highway 20 was injured when he was hit by a pickup truck, the driver of which fled the scene. In early June, a cyclist was struck by a car whose driver turned across Skyliners Road wihtout seeing the man; he suffered a broken leg.

"The more population of bikes there are, the more this issue becomes valid. Is there an easy long-term solution? No," says Esselstyn, continuing on to say that pounding bicycle rules into the minds of drivers and cyclists is the best plan.

Ray Thomas is a self-described "bicycle attorney" with the Portland-based firm Swanson, Thomas & Coon and is coming to Bend on August 5 (6pm at the REI in the Old Mill) to present a "Bicycle Legal Rights Clinic."

"I'm an unabashed cycling advocate," Thomas says right off the bat. "There are a lot of laws that give us rights that cyclists and motorists don't know exist. But there's also laws that we don't like to follow."

Thomas shares Esselstyn's view that the solution to reducing conflict between motorists and cyclists is educating both factions as to the rules that each are expected to follow. As Thomas points out, it's important to note that most cyclists are also licensed drivers and many drivers are cyclists.

"Many of these disputes are about ignorance as to what the law requires people to do," Thomas says.

When asked about the possibility of cyclists being required to undergo a licensing process similar to that of motorists, Thomas says the notion is worth contemplating but wholly unrealistic. He says such a process would be overwhelmingly expensive to put in place and difficult to enforce.

Eric Chu volunteers with the Bicycle Transit Alliance, a non-profit bicycle advocacy group. He agrees that education would likely quell some of the problems on our roads.

"Hardly any of us have had any sort of bike safety classes since grade school. It's a matter of the entire community, local media and law enforcement reaching out," he says.

The conversation, at least among these law enforcement, riders and safety advocates, seems to always steer toward a lack of knowledge amongst all those who use our roads - both rural stretches of open road as well as congested downtown byways. Sure, there will always be motorists who get an ego boost out of dangerously buzzing a road cyclist with their monster trucks and there will also be a few riders who can't seem to resist riding three across on a narrow road, but at the very least, there are voices looking to calm any impending battle between those who choose human power and those who prefer combustion engines.

Six years later, Dunning is back on her bike. Considering her lengthy recovery, it seems logical that she would have forsaken the sport that issued her the scars on her knees, but she is still out there pedaling. She might not be as fast as she once was, but she's certainly more careful.

The Law: Some basic Oregon bicycling laws and motorist responsibilities
* Bicyclists must yield to pedestrians
* Passing motorists must leave enough space to miss a cyclist if he/she falls.
* Cyclists may ride up to two abreast at the "normal speed of traffic"
* When riding slower, cyclists must ride as far to the right as is safe.
* Motorists must yield to cyclists in bike lanes, crosswalks and sidewalks

Source: Swanson, Thomas & Coon 

Education: Bicycle Legal Rights Class with attorney Ray Thomas
6-7:30pm Tuesday, August 5. REI 380 Powerhouse Dr. Call 385-0954 to register. Free.

 

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