City Man's Death Places Focus On Bike Safety

Cyclist Killed By Truck Tuesday Had Taken Precautions Against Accidents

August 06, 2009|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,

John R. Yates had a mirror on his helmet to see behind him, lights on his bike and even a little siren to alert drivers ahead of him.

"He was equipped. He was safe," said his wife, Ellen Yates. "I thought he was safe."

But the avid cyclist died Tuesday morning while riding south on Maryland Avenue when he got tangled in the rear wheels of a truck that turned right onto Lafayette Avenue in front of him.

The Charles North incident illuminates some of the safety challenges facing two-wheeled Baltimore travelers, despite efforts to encourage this form of transportation.

"Cyclists don't want to be in the way of cars. Some are scared. Some just want to be courteous," said Barry Childress, advocacy chairman of the Baltimore Bicycling Club. "But what do you do when there's no extra width on the roadway?"

Statewide, seven people have died in bicycle accidents each year from 2005 through 2008, and since 1999, an average of eight people have been killed annually in bicycle accidents, according to the State Highway Administration.

Yates, 67, died of massive trauma to the abdomen and left leg, said Agent Donny Moses, a Baltimore police spokesman. Investigators were still looking for the truck Wednesday and believe that the driver might not have been aware of Yates' injury.

New laws regulating driver and bicyclist behavior, driver education and infrastructure improvements could make a difference, said Carol Silldorf, executive director of One Less Car, which supports alternative transportation. For instance, state legislators have failed to approve a bill to require drivers to leave three feet of space when passing a bike.

"There are things like that, where we do need to have the state take more leadership in promoting cycling education and promotion," said Nate Evans, the bike-pedestrian planner for the city department of transportation.

Baltimore faces some of the same infrastructure problems that other cities face: poor pavement quality, unsafe storm drain grates and exposed streetcar tracks, he said. However, other improvements, including programs to encourage people to bike in groups and plans for 80 more lane miles, are helping the city slowly become more bike-friendly, Evans said.

The Baltimore Bicycling Club teaches safe cycling classes. "Right hook" crashes like the one that killed Yates are common, Childress said, and riders are taught to make a quick right turn to avoid a collision.

According to national crash data, trucks are overly represented in fatal accidents, killing bicyclists while making right turns, Childress said. The bike club is working with national groups to require mirrors and address this problem, he said.

Bike riders need to take responsibility too, since they bear the brunt of the risk. "Any cyclist should be aware that if there is a collision ... generally speaking, the bicycle is going to lose that battle," said Josh Keogh, co-owner of Baltimore Bicycle Works.

But for roads to be safer, drivers must acknowledge that bicycles have a right to share the pavement, too. "I am concerned when I hear motorists express a view that they are the sole acceptable users of roadways, and I do feel it is a pervasive opinion," he said.

Members of the Velocipede Bike Project, which operates a nonprofit bike shop on Lanvale Street near the scene of the crash, plan to dedicate a "ghost bike" memorial to Yates - a bicycle painted white with the victim's name to commemorate his life as well as to remind the community to be safe.

John Yates' wife, Ellen, said her husband avoided riding in the city, except "maybe once in a while, because he knew how dangerous the streets were."

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