Rough ride: Fatal accidents put new focus on bicycle safety

Riders take a turn on Killens Pond Road near Felton during Bike to The Bay. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Bicyclist John Bare is passionate about two-wheeled pedaling.

“I love the speed, the turns, the sights, sounds and smells of just being outside, whether on the roadways, mountain bikes or really nice trails that have been built here,” he said.

There’s also the sobering possibility that every ride might be his last. Five bicyclists (four in Sussex County, one in Kent) have been killed in Delaware so far this year. There were three bike-related deaths in 2016.

The latest fatality came after a Sept. 7 incident near Milford. That’s when Thomas H. Draper, 76, was struck by a pickup truck while traveling on Slaughter Beach Road at 7:35 a.m. He died from injuries approximately 19 hours later after being airlifted to the R. Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore in critical condition.

Police said the bicyclist was wearing a helmet and reflective clothing at the time of impact.

Authorities reported early this week that no charges had been filed and an ongoing investigation was “very active,” according to spokesman Master Cpl. Gary Fournier.

This past week, the Delaware Office of Highway safety reported an average of 154 vehicle-bike crashes annually since 2013.

Cyclists on a tandem bike pedal along Del. 9 near Little Creek Friday. (Delaware State News/Andrew West)

Assuring safety is a shared experience between bicyclist and motorist often traveling within a few feet or less of each other. If 25 mph or more is involved, the chance for a fatality skyrockets.

“The growth in cycling also challenges both cyclists and motorists to do a better job of sharing the roads safely and to better understand each other’s challenges in staying safe,” AAA-Mid Atlantic spokesman Jim Lardear said.

“For example, drivers need to increase their awareness of bicyclists when making turns and to check for bicyclists along the edge of the traffic lane before opening car doors so you do not cause a collision when exiting your vehicle,” he said. “By showing common courtesy and respect on the road, we can ensure the two-way street is a safe street for all,”

Road conditions dictate that yielding is essential to survival.

Bicyclists ride on Chimney Hill Road near Felton during Bike to The Bay. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“As a bicyclist I’m a totally allowed user on the road and my safety is more important than the convenience of other users,” Mr. Bare insisted.

“Yes, I am cognizant that I am required to follow the rules of the road, but there are some times where there’s not enough room for everyone.”

Also, Mr. Bare acknowledges “how accepting most motorists are to bicyclists.”

Delaware fares well

Dover resident Tom Hartley estimated there’s 30 percent or less of Kent County roads on which he feels unsafe, and they are easily avoided. He rides in a group of 10 to 20 riders three to four times a week, including out-of-staters.

“I’d like to think they come from New Jersey and Maryland to see us because of our winning personalities, but it’s actually more enjoyable for them to ride here because of the conditions,” Mr. Hartley said.

“You don’t always need shoulders if there’s low traffic volume, and that’s a lot of what we see.”

On U.S. 13 in Dover “there’s too much traffic, they go too fast and you’re too close to them, so it’s a good place to avoid.”

Del. 1 bicycle traffic is prohibited north of Dover Air Force Base, and cyclists can ride southbound to the Maryland state line. No bicycles are allowed on Interstates 95 and 495 in New Castle County, and other areas are blocked by signs and municipal laws.

Riders take a turn on Killens Pond Road near Felton during last year’s Bike to The Bay.

Weeks or sometimes months pass with no vehicle-bike incidents, Mr. Hartley said.

“You learn how to interact with cars and help them get around you,” he said. “They don’t want to be going 20 miles per hour behind us and we understand that. We don’t want them there either.”

In Central Delaware, according to Mr. Hartley, “There are no major rivers or high rising mountains. If you know where you’re going you don’t have any major impediments.

“You can go from Point A to Point B without roads facing a permanent barrier. We can navigate pretty well.”

In 2015, the League of American Bicyclists ranked Delaware No. 3 nationally — trailing only Washington and Minnesota — for its positive approach to bicycle legislation and enforcement, policies and programs, infrastructure and funding, education and encouragement, and evaluation and planning.

The Mid-Atlantic region earned high marks, with Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virgina ranking No. 10 to No. 13. Alabama ranked worst nationally, trailing No. 48 Kansas and No. 49 Kentucky.

In a Bicycle Friendly State Application for the ranking, then-Delaware governor and avid bicyclist Jack Markell was lauded for his approach. He was the first governor to ever speak at the National Bike Summit, Mr. Bare said.

“Gov. Markell’s impact was monumental,” Mr. Bare said. “He set the tone for state agencies (especially DelDOT) and the legislature to support active, healthy lifestyles and active transportation. Bicycling was viewed as a contributor to solutions for health and transportation, not merely as recreation.”

In a state of the state address, Gov. Markell said, “one of the best ways we can improve our quality of life, and promote healthy lifestyles at the same time, is to make our state more walkable and bikeable. …”

Reasons for crashes

After traveling over 300,000 miles on his bike in Delaware, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, Mr. Bare said he’s been in six or seven crashes resulting in mostly road rashes and some stitches. The incidents mostly involved vehicles attempting to pass him and squeezing the bike off the road, he said.

“When vehicles are hugging the right side of the road, they are inviting trouble,” Mr. Bare said.

Delaware has a three-foot safe passing law requiring motorists to keep a safe distance from bicyclists.

Serving as Bike Delaware’s Bicycle Friendly State Coordinator, Mr. Bare admits that cyclists are often to blame for crashes.

Generally speaking, he said, about half of all incidents involve just one bike and about 25 percent are bike hitting bike. Of the remaining 25 percent or so of bike and vehicle incidents, half are the motorists fault, half the bicyclist.

Regardless of whose to blame, the two-wheeled rider is sure to get the worst of it. Delaware State Police reported that 76 percent of crashes in 2016 caused injuries.

“Most of all crashes end up with minor injuries, but once you get a 7,000-pound vehicle crashing into a cyclist that may weight 185 pounds, it’s not a fair fight,” Mr. Bare said.

According to Delaware Office of Highway Safety spokesman Mitch Topal, “Most crashes occur at night in reduced visibility, in warmer weather and many involve impaired drivers or cyclists.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited studies showing a majority of bicyclist deaths happening in urban areas and non-intersection areas.

The highest bicycle death rates are among 50- to 59-year-old adults, and men die six times more often than females and are injured four times more often, studies showed.

Thanks to the recently-passed Bike Friendly Delaware Act, which Mr. Bare described as “the envy of every state for clarifying wording” for bike issues, progressive safety enhancements are part of the plan. Delaware State Police championed the bill, he said.

On June 11, following two improperly operated bicycles crashing with injuries, State Police issued a public reminder of safety and laws associated with traveling on roadways,

Delaware’s Department of Transportation has hosted 10 bicycle rodeos this year, building safety skills for 645 students. More events are scheduled.

While “not many adults have an interest in taking safety courses because they think they know it all,” according to Mr. Bare, DelDOT proactively offers safety courses on Delaware law and rules of the road for beach-bound international students aiming to make money working the tourist resorts during the summer.

“Transportation is a problem and as a result many students uses a bicycle as their only means of transportation,” OHS’s Mr. Topal said.

“However, their customs are often a mismatch with U.S. road and driver habits.”

During the summer, DelDOT executes bicycle safety checkpoints which distribute safety brochures and maps. Free bicycle lights and helmets are available, along with repair work if needed.

This year, 648 contacts were made with residents, visitors and international students – 550 sets of bicycle lights and 133 helmets were handed out.

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