Cyclists need to watch, listen and ride defensively

Reminder prompted by cyclists' deaths in crashes

I was just finishing up a column on a 74-year-old avid cyclist killed while riding her bike in Door County when more bad news came in.

This time it was the passing of former Madison Police Capt. Cheri Maples, who died Thursday—more than 10 months after suffering life-threatening injuries in a bicycle crash last September. She was 64.

Maples, who was widely cheered as a leader in progressive policing, died after going into distress from a systemic infection. She had been paralyzed since the crash at the intersection of the Capitol City State Trail and Syene Road in Fitchburg.

I know the intersection well and have always thought it was a danger spot. In fact, anywhere bike routes meet busy roads demands open eyes, turning heads and close attention from both drivers and riders.

In this case, Fitchburg police determined Maples failed to observe the stop sign while riding east on the Capitol City State Trail and ran into the side of a van heading north on Syene Road. No tickets were issued. It was a sad story for everyone involved.

On July 22, a bike and van collision also took the life of Lou Branham of New Brighton, Minnesota. She was on her way back to Peninsula State Park following a 60-mile ride when she was hit by a driver traveling on County Highway A.

The driver, who has not been charged or named as of this report, told police that Branham failed to obey a stop sign at the three-way intersection of Juddville Road before pulling onto County A, which is a designated bicycle route through Door County. The driver said he attempted to brake but could not stop in time.

In a press release, the Door County Sheriff’s Department said speed and alcohol do not appear to be factors in the crash. Police also said their preliminary investigation indicates the cyclist failed to stop at a stop sign.

But Branham’s husband, Gerald, told The Peninsula Pulse that GPS readings from his wife’s phone indicated she had slowed to 1.1 miles per hour at the intersection and had accelerated to 22.4 mph when she was hit.

“It seems to me that she had to have come to a stop to be going 1 mile per hour, which is a very slow walking speed,” he told Pulse contributing editor Myles Dannhausen Jr.

With no other witnesses, we have only the word of the driver to explain what happened. Nevertheless, the fatality shows yet again that when bicyclists are hit by motor vehicles the outcome is often tragic.

In many cases, of course, drivers are clearly at fault.

For example, a Brooklyn man pleaded guilty earlier this year of homicide while driving under the influence of drugs in the hit and run death of triathlete Shelton Berel.

Berel, 33, was riding his bike on Lincoln Road west of Oregon early on the morning of Aug. 5, when Kevin Meister’s truck crossed the center line and crashed into the cyclist. Meister, who allegedly had a history of substance abuse issues, left the scene and was later arrested.

In another case, Rollen Fries of Mazomanie is charged with homicide by negligent driving in the death of Cynthia Arsnow, 62, who was riding on U.S. 14 east of Cross Plains on the morning of July 15, 2016, when she was hit by Fries—who later admitted, according to police, he was “looking at some papers and drove off the shoulder of the road and hit her."

But while cyclists can be quick to blame drivers, riders also need to do their part to avoid these kinds of tragedies. Paying attention, being predictable and watching out for hazards are the best safety measures.

I’ve been riding bikes for over 50 years now and have long taken the approach that it’s my responsibility to look out for the other guy—whether that means another cyclist, a pedestrian, deer, turkey or a distracted driver.

A defensive posture is even more important these days given that everyone seems to have their nose buried in an electronic device.

Does that mean I come to a dead stop at every intersection? Hardly. I’ve long been a fan of the “Idaho stop” which refers to a law allowing cyclists to roll through a stop sign if the coast is clear. Studies show that might not be such a bad idea.

But I do keep my head on a swivel when I’m on the bike and have learned to look up the road for potential problems. Watching out for others is something I’ve tried to emphasize to my 12-year-old son and his buddies as they learn to navigate the busy streets in our Bay Creek neighborhood in south Madison.

The good news is that bike fatalities in the U.S. haven’t spiked over the past decades despite population increases and growth in the number of riders. More designated trails, the use of helmets and better road designs have all contributed to improved safety, according to federal transportation figures.

Still, the best helmet in the world won’t help much when a bicyclist meets a two-ton vehicle. It’s up to riders and drivers to keep the roads safe for everyone.

Mike Ivey writes the Footloose blog for madisonmagazine.com.

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