Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 6, 2013

Bike/car clashes extend beyond streets

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Johanna Schmidt is one of the fastest female cyclists in the state, and she’s crashed plenty of times.

She’s crashed in most of her mountain bike races, whether bouncing off a tree or wiping out in sand. Her most infamous crash was at the 2012 Cherry-Roubaix, when she screamed down a hill in a breakaway and wiped out as she rounded a corner.

But it was a casual, noon-time bike trip to Traverse City’s Eastern Elementary School that ended her racing career — at least for now.

On May 24, she was riding on a Civic Center paved trail that leads to East Front and Fair streets at a diagonal. Schmidt usually makes eye contact with vehicle drivers at all intersections, especially so before crossing at Front Street because of the danger of crossing as a “salmon” — on the left hand side.

But she wanted to cross while the pedestrian light remained white and didn’t think the car at the intersection was turning because it sat far back from the corner. As Schmidt began to cross, the car indeed turned right and hit her. Schmidt softly landed, uninjured, on the car hood.

The teen-age driver saw Schmidt on the hood and slammed on her brakes, tossing Schmidt onto the pavement.

“I landed right on my butt on the sacrum and it cracked,” she said.

Neither Schmidt nor the driver received a ticket, according to the 86th District Court.

Nerve damage from the fall caused a loss of feeling in her pelvic area and multiple complications, but she hopes the nerve will heal within a couple years.

“I knew this was going to be a long, hard haul. Luckily, I’m very patient,” she said.

Schmidt is among 19 cyclists involved this summer in collisions with motor vehicles, including Kelly Ann Boyce, who was fatally hit as she cycled to her Washington Street home early July 5. Police have still not identified the driver who struck Boyce, dragged her for more than a block, and drove off.

The number of car/bicycle crashes this year approximates the total of 18 last year, and both years are significantly down from 2008 and 2011, when accidents numbered 30 and 31, respectively.

The Boyce tragedy sparked an intense local debate over who’s at fault for all the collisions.

Just two doors down from Boyce’s home live Tom Akalis and Jacqui Racine. Akalis created a large sign titled “Cyclists Respecting Rules of the Road” and stood in his front yard at random intervals to tally bicyclist behavior. He found that 94 percent of about 200 cyclists didn’t obey safety laws, which mostly included failing to stop or slow at the stop sign, as well as riding on the sidewalk, which is, in fact, legal on Washington Street.

Akalis said he made the sign in reaction to a firestorm of letters in a local media forum. He believes cyclists in their “look at me, little spandex costumes” have a sense of entitlement on the road and treat motorists with disdain. Racine complained that cyclists using the TART trail along Railroad Street rarely stop at the signs; her reminders often are met with profanity, she said.

Akalis acknowledges he sometimes runs stop signs while bicycling, but approaches them slowly and looks for cars. He was asked if he thought his tallying was insensitive in light of Boyce’s death.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “That didn’t have to do anything with courtesy to bicyclists. That was murder. The sign responded to the controversy in the paper. It’s a two-way street, folks. You want people to be courteous; you need to pay attention to your responsibilities.”

Mary Gibson of Traverse City said cyclists don’t seem to realize they have to follow the same rules as motorists.

“I almost nailed a guy on State Street because he was riding on the wrong side of the street and on the sidewalk. I missed him by about two inches,” she said.

But Mark Dressler, an elite cyclist, said drivers also must watch for cyclists. He was riding on the right hand side of Front Street at 8 a.m. a month ago. A car, traveling in the opposite direction, turned left onto Hall Street and hit Dressler. He remembers little of what happened except for getting popped into the air.

Ed Reynolds, a friend of Dressler’s, happened to be driving behind the car.

“He told me I brought the bike around and landed it. That’s all I know,” Dressler said. “I didn’t get hurt.”

The driver didn’t stop to ask. Reynolds followed the car into a nearby parking lot and “guilted” the driver into returning to the scene, said Dressler, who filed a police report.

Bicyclist Carol Tompkins Parker, 58, hit twice by cars this summer, said a driver ran a stop sign in the second incident and was ticketed.

“It almost seems not really an epidemic, but you feel almost like a target riding your bike,” she said. “I think a number of motorists think they have the right of the road, and I know we’re supposed to share the roads equally. We’re called the ‘bicycle city,’ but I’m sorry. It’s to the contrary.”

One positive: Traverse City commission candidates are talking about the issue, said Tim Werner, a commission candidate who chairs the city’s Active Transportation Committee that aims to create a Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan and recommend education, enforcement and infrastructure strategies.

“There seems to be consensus on this idea of grace and courtesy, let’s treat people with respect, regardless of how we get around,” Werner said.

But there’s still no consensus among candidates on how infrastructure can improve driving and bike behaviors, he said.

Commission candidate Gary Howe, who also sits on the committee, said it’s a matter of designing streets that make people feel welcome and that they belong.

Part of the problem is that the rapidly emerging bike culture has exceeded the area’s infrastructure. Many city streets and major arteries, for example, lack bike lanes.

TART Trails is hoping to connect the region with trails, bikeways, and pedestrian-friendly streets, said Arianne Whittaker, TART’s marketing and outreach director.

Tom Auer, a safety advocate, recommends cyclists wear bright clothes, make eye contact with drivers at intersections, and use lights in the front and back, and even in bike wheels.

“Kelly Boyce’s family has asked the community to share more love and that’s what we need to do,” he said. “Essentially, when we look at each other and make eye contact at a corner, we’re just taking care of each other.”