Peddling Bike Safety His Mission

Determined Severn Retiree Is 'Clearinghouse' On Data

September 10, 1991|By Elise Armacost | Elise Armacost,Staff writer

John Overstreet's wheels are always turning -- the ones in his head as well as the ones on his bicycle.

Since he started a biking project for Girl Scouts 20 years ago, this graying grandfather, 64, has become Anne Arundel's patron saint of bicycle safety, a walking encyclopedia of every bicycle-related statistic anyone could want to know.

Overstreet can tell you the time of day when most bicycle accidents occur (6 to 7 p.m.). He can tell you the most dangerous road in the county for bicyclists (Baltimore-Annapolis Boulevard). He knows theage and sex of every Anne Arundel cyclist involved in an accident. He knows where they were and what they were doing.

"He's a one-man clearinghouse on bicycle safety data," says Chuck Jackson, spokesman for the Maryland State Police.

Retired from the Coast Guard and the U.S. Postal Service, Overstreet estimates he works 40 to 60 hours aweek on bicycle safety -- for nothing.

His 1990 bicycle/moving vehicle accident report is 30 pages long. He files weekly or biweekly safety reports with Maryland State Police and supplies data to the state Department of Transportation's highway safety division.

So far this year, Overstreet, who lives in Severn, has spoken to 2,500 children and adults about bicycle safety at schools, senior centers and other facilities across Maryland.

On Saturday, Aug. 31, Overstreet ran a bicycle rodeo at the Matthewstown festival in Harmans. The following Tuesday he worked on his accident report. He traveled to a Carroll County elementary school Wednesday to give a talk. On Thursday, hespoke to senior citizens in Glen Burnie. Friday, he prepared for a bicycle safety clinic.

"It's definitely unusual to find someone who's willing to devote as much time as he has to something like this ona volunteer basis," says Dennis Atkins, deputy director of the stateOffice of Transportation Planning.

"He's a dedicated man," notes County Councilwoman Maureen Lamb, D-Annapolis, a bicycle enthusiast herself. "It's remarkable. He has taken one thing and decided, 'I am going to make a difference in that one thing.' And he is making a difference."

To look at him, you wouldn't think Overstreet has been biking all his life and still -- one month shy of his 65th birthday -- pedals about 100 miles a week. A big man, he walks with a slight limpand lacks the lean, muscular physique of most bikers.

He doesn't race, nor does he go in for trendy sportswear or accessories. He wears shorts, tennis shoes and an "I brake for the B & A Trail" T-shirt. His bicycle is an unspectacular gray, $400 touring model.

"It's not necessary to spend more than $1,000 on a bike," which is what some new all-terrain models cost, he says. "Ninety percent of the people who have mountain bikes don't use them for what they're really designed for, anyway."

As a kid growing up in Illinois, Overstreet used alittle one-speed to run his paper route. During his years in the Coast Guard, he couldn't afford a car and used a bicycle.

It wasn't until 1972, when he and his wife, Frances, formed a biking club for 4-H'ers, that he started to become a dedicated activist. Soon, he was helping Girl Scouts earn bicycle merit badges and marketing bicycle safety classes in local schools. He developed his own safety clinic andhad hundreds of thousands of bookmarks and brochures printed.

"I just kept adding more and more to it," he says.

Today, Overstreet estimates his annual budget at $7,000. He gets $2,000 from the Baltimore Bicycling Club, of which he is a member, and a $4,000 grant from the state Department of Transportation's highway safety division. Therest comes out of his own pocket. At first, he paid all expenses.

"I didn't realize how much money I was putting into this thing," he says.

In 1979, Overstreet started gathering statistics of Anne Arundel bicycle accidents "to see if my bicycle safety education was paying off. It was. The statistics showed fewer bicycle accidents in theareas where we did programs."

Today, he also compiles statistics from Baltimore, Prince George's, Montgomery and Howard counties, as well as less-detailed statewide information. He says he spends at least six months a year just gathering statistics.

In 1990, Overstreetfound there were 1,354 bicycle accidents in Maryland, 15 of them fatal. Most accidents, he says, are caused by poor biker-motorist communication, by children who don't realize they have to stop at stop signs or scan intersections for oncoming traffic, or by motorists who don't know how to pass a bicycle.

An avid supporter of bicycle helmets, Overstreet has testified in Howard and Montgomery counties on mandatory helmet bills and plans to back Lamb's efforts to require helmets in Anne Arundel. He's known at the State Highway Administration forhis support of "biker-friendly" roads. Most local police agencies recognize his name.

"He probably tells us more than we need to know," says 1st Sgt. Robert Scruggs of the state police's Glen Burnie barracks, a serious bicycle racer. Considering all the problems police handle, "I'm not sure we're going to try to beat the bushes to make bicyclists do the right thing."

At the state Office of TransportationPlanning, Overstreet's work has proved useful, said Atkins, the deputy director. "We use quite a bit of what he compiles," he said. "We use it in the development process and on legislative issues."

Most who know him agree that Overstreet's most valuable contribution has been his work with children. "He's very good with children," notes Jackson, the state police spokesman.

That's no wonder, since Overstreet has six grown children and has been raising his 12-year-old grandson since infancy.

Clearly, he'd have plenty to do without his bicycle safety crusade. "But this is my third career," he says, as he gathers his bookmarks and brochures and wheels his gray bike out the door.

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