Concern over bicycle traffic safety grows

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By Carol A. Clark

Bicycle safety concerns highlighted a Tuesday meeting between Police Chief Wayne Torpy, County Council Vice Chair Michael Wismer and longtime bicyclist Steven Booth.

In his 25-year career, Booth has never relied on a car to get to work, instead walking, riding bicycles and using public transportation. This includes large cities such as Washington, D.C., Guatemala City and San Jose, Costa Rica – but said he will no longer ride his bicycle to work in Los Alamos.

“I came to this decision last week after a particularly bad day where there were four incidents that made me realize this is not the time for me to ride my bike to work,” he said.

Booth isn’t sure whether the troubled economy or something else is affecting motorists but said driver frustration is escalating.

“Drivers do not know what to make of a cyclist who rides in the lane and keeps up with traffic, especially when approaching intersections,” he said.

What happened to him March 24 could have been tragic, Booth said, but he survived in large part because of his experience and cyclist training.

That day highlights the issue bike commuters are facing:

• Going to work from eastern area to TA-55 on Canyon Road at Diamond Drive, and using the proper techniques he signaled his intentions to the lone car about 100-yards behind him. He moved into the rightmost left turn lane to head onto Diamond. The car accelerated to beat the green light, passed hiim on the right just as we entered the intersection and cut in front of him to make the left turn.

• He crossed the bridge using the sidewalk and pressed the button for the crosswalk at Jemez Road. The walk signal was given and he rode south across the intersection in the crosswalk. A government van ran the red light to turn right from West Jemez onto Diamond while he was in the crosswalk.

• As he approached the Pajarito Road and Diamond Drive intersection, he said he signaled and negotiated over to the left lane with sufficient room. The car following him moved across the yellow line to attempt to pass him on the left in the final 50 yards before the intersection, then abruptly switched to the right lane and passed him at the intersection as she turned right talking on a cell phone.

• Going downtown for lunch he headed north on Diamond in a steady flow of traffic, keeping up and riding in the lane. Not a single driver was willing to follow him patiently at 20 mph, even though there were red lights ahead.

For his part he never slid up the line of cars on the right at each red light; he kept his position in the queue, Booth said.

“This type of motorist behavior is not exhibited when I drive my Suburban,” Booth said. “Overall, the drivers are not happy with me behaving as a vehicle even when I keep up with traffic. They consistently attempted illegal and dangerous passes simply to get ahead of the perceived delaying cyclist. They took all this risk simply to park at the next stoplight 100 yards ahead.”

Wismer called Tuesday’s meeting after receiving similar complaints from area cyclists.

“The situation is escalating and I think it’s a matter of motorists not understanding the law,” he said. “Bicycles as stated in the New Mexico code are to be treated as motor vehicles when the road doesn’t allow for a separate bike lane.”

Torpy commented that he is not surprised by the issue.

“This is a universal issue not unique to Los Alamos,” he said. “Part of this is attributed to unintentional traffic infractions but there is also an intentional road rage and that’s where I worry about our cyclists.”

Both cyclists and motorists have unique needs and no one in Los Alamos commutes more than about 10 miles to get where they’re going, Torpy said and a very small amount of time can be saved by rushing around people.

Motorists need to understand the catastrophic consequences that exist for pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists when they’re hit by a 4,000 pound vehicle, he said.

Torpy encourages all drivers to understand the law and exercise more patience.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the men described education as vital to a peaceful, friendly coexistence between motorists and bicyclists.

“The three Es to address this issue are education, enforcement and engineering,” Booth said. “The latest engineering is going nicely as new bike lanes are being created.”

As with motorists, all cyclists aren’t experienced or trained to know the dos and don’t of the road, he said, explaining that both should understand that bicyclists ride farthest to the right unless there’s a substandard width lane.

A substandard width describes a lane that is too narrow for a bicycle and a vehicle to travel side-by-side safely within the same lane. In that case, he said the bicycle may enter the vehicle lane and follow the same rules as a car.

“I would like to see the county adopt lane markings, which clearly designate when bicycles should be in bikes lanes and when they should be in vehicle lanes, as has been done in California,” Booth said. “This would encourage both parties to understand better.”

Contact Carol A. Clark at lanews@lamonitor.com or (505) 662-4185 ext. 25. Read her blog at www.newsextras.wordpress.com.