Cyclists seek road sharing

Danger: Fed up with hostility from drivers, some cyclists are fighting back by using the law.

May 15, 2002|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Riding a bike in Baltimore's suburbs may be hazardous to your health.

Cyclists say they are increasingly in peril from drivers hurling objects and insults as vehicles zoom past on narrow suburban and rural roads.

From casual pedalers to racers, most riders have at least one story to tell:

A soccer mom in a minivan tried to run me off the road. Some punk teen-ager shot at me with a paintball gun. One driver blared his horn and swore at me.

"This area is one of the most difficult places to coexist with motorists," said Howard County resident Nils Dennis, a bicycle racer for 23 years.

In just the past two weeks, Dennis said, he has been startled by someone firing a cap gun, harassed by a driver and injured when a pickup truck forced him off the road.

Long seen as a nuisance by impatient drivers, the cyclists are beginning to fight for their place on the road. They're using cell phones to call 911 immediately after an assault, filling out police reports for even minor incidents and filing civil lawsuits when criminal charges don't stick.

Michael Glass, a Baltimore County-based lawyer, said he represents five cyclists, including Dennis, who are considering civil lawsuits against their alleged harassers.

A rider himself, Glass said he is tired of seeing assault complaints fall upon deaf ears.

"The criminal-justice system has not been real responsive to us," he said. "It has an inherent bias against cyclists."

Baltimore County resident Arch McKown, president of Team Snow Valley, a nationally ranked amateur cycling group in Maryland, believes the bias is culturally based.

"Cars are seen as vehicles; bikes are seen as toys," he said. "If you're trying to get from point A to point B, you should be in a car."

This vehicle-centric mentality - essentially that might makes right - creates a hostile environment for cyclists, McKown said.

In late April, a car of taunting teens pulled alongside McKown on Bonnie Branch Road in Ellicott City and walloped him in the head with a Coke bottle.

One of the teens then leaned out the car window and tried to fire what appeared to be a paintball gun at McKown, he said.

The teens laughed and sped off before McKown could get a good look at the license plate, which was propped inside the rear window, he said.

He filed a police report but figured police would never track down the car.

But the story did not end there.

About a week later, McKown was riding near where the first incident occurred when the same car swerved toward him and screeched its brakes, trying to scare him, he said.

McKown announced that he and his teammate had called police, and the car pulled a hard 180-degree turn and sped away, he said. Minutes later, that car crashed head-on into another vehicle full of teen-agers, sending four people to the hospital and badly damaging both cars, McKown said.

Howard County police took a report on the first incident, police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn said, noting the report makes no mention of a bottle and indicates the cyclist was uninjured.

Since the second incident occurred just over the county line on River Road, Baltimore County police investigated the crash, Baltimore County police spokeswoman Cpl. Vickie Warehime said.

McKown and Dennis recently shared their stories with a group of cyclists by e-mail, prompting an onslaught of responses that detailed more instances of harassment.

Dennis brought hard copies of that e-mail correspondence to the Howard County Police Department last week, along with a letter asking Police Chief Wayne Livesay for a meeting about cyclist safety.

Llewellyn said the police department forwarded that packet to its special operations bureau.

Complaints filed by cyclists are lumped in with all other assault complaints, Llewellyn said, making it difficult to determine how many such incidents occur each year.

In terms of accidents, 22 of the 4,378 collisions in Howard County in 2000 - the most recent data available - involved bicycles, Llewellyn said.

Pete Olsen, executive director of One Less Car, a Maryland nonprofit organization based in Annapolis, said many complaints against cyclists are rooted in ignorance of the law.

"Even friends and family of mine ask why I'm riding on the road," he said. Olsen remembered one instance when a female driver slowly crept past him, sharply pointing at the sidewalk the whole time.

According to Maryland law, cyclists are prohibited from riding on sidewalks and may not ride against the flow of traffic.

Bicycles are permitted on any roadway with a posted speed of 50 mph or less, according to state law. Local jurisdictions often make provisions that amend cycling laws, Olsen said.

Olsen said he would like to see drivers treat cyclists as slow-moving vehicles, sharing the road with them and passing with care.

Cyclists may be legally allowed on most roadways, but they need to use common sense about when and where to ride, McKown acknowledged.

"We need to recognize that there are certain roads that are not really safe for us to be on at some times," he said. "Getting along requires cooperation. It's a two-way street."

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