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August 10th, 2005 Ryan Hume | News Stories
 

RIDING HERD

Cyclists pressing for crackdown on bike-unfriendly motorists.

     
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IMAGE: MARTINTHIEL.COM
Bicyclist Steven Brown's recent descent down a hill on Southwest Terwilliger Boulevard nearly ended on the back bumper of a black SUV.

Brown recalls how the SUV passed him tightly on a blind turn, then prepared to make a left. When another car approaching the SUV forced it to cut back into its own lane, the 53-year-old bicyclist only narrowly avoided tasting bumper.

Brown was angry but unsurprised.

"I average that my safety is put in jeopardy once every 20 miles," Brown says of his cycling. In response, Brown has begun taking souvenirs from the vehicles he feels ignore his presence: "I've gotten good at taking off an antenna or a windshield wiper blade...if I can catch them."

Brown, like many local cyclists, has is mad at the recent number of bike-related fatalities, and by what doesn't happen to drivers caught in those collisions (see Rogue of the Week, WW, Aug. 3, 2005).

There have been five bicycle-related fatalities this year in the Portland-metro area that involved motor vehicles. While those numbers have remained constant over the past few years, cyclists and city officials who track them say the number of riders has actually increased dramatically.

Here's why charges usually aren't brought against motorists: Oregon state law defines a vehicle as a car, motorcycle or bicycle. Thus, bicycles aren't granted the same right-of-way as pedestrians and are bound to obey traffic law the same as a car.

That means when assigning blame in accidents, Portland police are impartial to the types of vehicles involved.

"We can't presuppose whose vehicle was bigger or smaller," says Portland Police Bureau spokesman Sgt. Brian Schmautz.

And in any two-vehicular accident, Schmautz says, only trauma-injury incidents get investigated.

The vehicle definition in some ways presents a catch-22 for bicycle advocates. While they fight to be recognized as traffic, they also have no legal separation differentiating them from a five-ton SUV.

There is no accurate way to know how many non-fatal bicycle accidents are happening in Portland. Police ask those involved in bike-car accidents to exchange information the same way as with crashes involving just cars, Schmautz says. But this does not account for how many nicks, scrapes and verbal altercations occur every day.

This week, the local nonprofit Bicycle Transportation Alliance announced the creation of a crash team that will respond to crash sites and advocate for improvements and enforcement concerning bicycle safety, as well as federal transportation dollars. The crash team is also asking the City of Portland to establish a website, similar to ghostcycle.org in Seattle, where cyclists involved in accidents can post data and problem areas.

"Portland is a very bike-friendly city," says BTA head Evan Manvel. "There are more cyclists on the road all the time, and it is getting safer. But we need to make sure we're doing all we can."

Still, animosity is growing toward motorists in the cycling community.

"You ride down the street huffing exhaust and you see your preferred mode of transportation, the more environmentally conscious one, being marginalized," says Jonathan Maus, who runs the blog Bikeportland.org. When it comes down to it, Maus says, motorists can kill bicyclists a lot easier than bicyclists can motorists.

 
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