Fatal crash renews concern about bicyclists' safety on roads

June 30, 1994|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Sun Staff Writer

The recent death of a bicyclist on Route 94 has prompted some west county residents to ask whether automobiles and farm equipment can safely co-exist with bicycles on the narrow, overgrown and curving "scenic" roads the county government is intent on preserving.

"Even if you're traveling the speed limit, if you come upon a biker on a curve . . ., there's no place to go, there's no shoulder, there's no way to avoid them," said county Farm Bureau President Martha Clark.

On the afternoon of June 16, 41-year-old bicyclist Janis Seraphin of Millersville, was fatally injured after a car apparently tried to pass her on a blind hill, forcing an oncoming motorist to swerve into the bicycle.

The motorist who struck the bicycle rider was not charged. Police are still seeking the driver of the car that passed the bicycle rider.

"There are some roads that are certainly not designed to handle safely both vehicular and bicycle traffic," said Battalion Chief Donald Howell of the county Department of Fire & Rescue Services. "Where the fatality occurred the other day, there is virtually no shoulder, so a bicyclist would have to be traveling in the [main] portion of the roadway."

Although there appears to be a proliferation of bicyclists on west county roads, the most recent statistics compiled by the State Highway Administration show bicycle accidents countywide to be rare compared with the overall number of traffic accidents.

In 1992, there were 19 bicycle accidents out of 3,915 traffic accidents in the county. In 1991, there were 17 bicycle accidents among 3,173 accidents and, in 1990, there were 20 bicycle accidents out of 3,675 traffic accidents.

Bicycle enthusiasts say that they are well aware that some west county roads can be hazardous.

"As both a motorist and a cyclist, it would be nice if all roads had a shoulder on them," said Ed Cahill, an Ellicott City resident who organizes bicycle road trips in the west county for the Baltimore Bicycling Club.

Although he is not uncomfortable riding on west county roads, Mr. Cahill admits that his feelings may be an exercise in self-deception.

"You have to know that it takes a certain amount of denial not to be afraid of a car overtaking you from the rear," he said.

He said that a cyclist should know and obey traffic laws.

"The law states that I have a right to the roadway, but I have to be as far to the right as possible," he said. Sometimes it is difficult, or even dangerous, to ride on a shoulder if it is made of gravel, or in poor condition, he said.

Sgt. Glenn A. Hansen, supervisor of the county police Traffic Enforcement Section, said it appeared that one of the motorists involved in the fatal Route 94 accident was trying to pass the bicyclist when the accident occurred.

Coming up over the hill, the motorist coming the other way saw the passing car coming at her, veered to the left across the road and hit the bicyclist.

"The bicyclist was doing the right thing," Sergeant Hansen said, noting that the bicycle rider was going south in the southbound lane.

The passing motorist could have waited to pass the bicyclist in a more open area and gone around safely, Sergeant Hansen said.

As a result of the accident and general concern about bicycle safety in the west county, officials met last Thursday to discuss ways of dealing with the problem.

This week, Police Chief James Robey decided to start a "share the road" campaign to educate west county motorists on how to deal with bicycles and slow-moving farm equipment and on what state law says about such vehicles on public roads.

The program will try to teach motorists that bicyclists have a right to the road, said Sergeant Hansen, supervisor of the department's Traffic Enforcement Division.

"Part of people getting aggravated at bicycles on the roadway is a little misunderstanding -- people thinking that they don't have a right to be there, but they do," Sergeant Hansen said.

The campaign will teach proper driving habits, such as waiting to pass bicycles until there is adequate visibility ahead, which would mean not passing on a curve or a hill.

It also will inform bicyclists of their legal obligations in sharing the road with motorized vehicles, Sergeant Hansen said.

"Bicycles have to follow the same rules of the road, and motorists have to expect them to be there and use some common courtesy, like they would in any situation," he said.

The Farm Bureau's Ms. Clark and other west county farmers spoke out on bicycle safety at last week's hearing on a package of legislation aimed at preserving the scenic character of rural, historic and forested roads in the county.

Although the legislation seeks to limit the routine road widening that comes with the development of new subdivisions, county planners say it will let county officials err on the side of safety, even on a road with the scenic designation.

"We've clearly said that if there happens to be some kind of accident history, that's a problem that needs to be fixed," said Marsha McLaughlin, deputy director of planning and zoning.

After the legislation's expected enactment, she said, there needs to be a meeting with bicycle associations and clubs to seek their views.

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