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Motorists, Bicycle Riders Collide Over Misbehavior on the Roadway

July 25, 2001|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Highway 1 columnist Kathleen Doheny's recent look at the tension between motorists and bicycle riders in Southern California generated lots of mail from readers. But though the July 11 column called for cooperation and understanding, the responses were almost universally polarized and angry.

"I am a Southern California motorist, and I detest adult bike riders because of their road-hog behaviors," wrote San Diego resident Jim Dodd. "Adults on bikes ride with an attitude and commonly perform endless illegal actions, such as running red lights and stop signs, riding on sidewalks and pedestrian crosswalks, pack riding and blocking lanes. I see them as accidents looking for a place to happen."

Don Harvey, executive director of the Orange County Bicycle Coalition, a group based in Orange, sees it from the other side of the windshield: "Your article is entitled 'Drivers, Bicyclists Must Find Common Ground on Safety,' " he wrote. "How can that happen when the laws are made and enforced by drivers, and when most safety issues are about car occupants?"

A bike rider from Encino recounted an incident of several years ago in which someone in a carful of teenagers hit him in the back with a king-size cup of iced soft drink as he was pedaling along Van Nuys Boulevard.

The incident was nasty and illustrated how unthinking some people can be. The rider easily could have been knocked from his bike and into traffic.

But the bicyclist lost any claim to righteousness by going on about how he tracked down the "punk teenagers" and ultimately vandalized the Jaguar sedan in which they were riding.

We received no mail from motorists willing to describe how they had terrorized bicyclists, but every serious bike rider has a story or two about being run off the road, yelled at or otherwise harassed by drivers whose anger was spurred by the simple fact that a bicycle was there.

Richard Pierce, an early-morning walker in Burbank, complained that he has never seen any of the hundreds of bicycling enthusiasts who pass him on his weekend hikes obeying any of the more than two dozen stop signs and red lights in his neighborhood.

But New Mexico resident John Yip, who read Doheny's column on The Times' Web site, said he rides all over Albuquerque on his bike and complained that "I've seen more car drivers [than bike riders] who never come to a complete stop, including police cruisers--and who's going to give them a ticket?"

*

All the finger pointing would be funny if it weren't so tragic.

"The two sides are definitely polarized," said Malcolm Foster, a Bay Area software development manager and avid bicyclist who last year started the Marin County Share the Road Program (http://www.marinsharetheroad.com) in hopes of bringing a better understanding of traffic laws and common courtesy to motorists and bicycle riders alike.

Foster isn't anti-car. He drives, and says his attitude when he was in his car used to be "Hey, this is my road." But after a close friend was killed in a bicycle-versus-car accident, Foster realized that when he rode his bike, "I also felt like 'Hey, this is my road.' I realized I had completely different attitudes and behavior patterns" depending on which means of propulsion he was using.

"A lot of cyclists tend to want the benefits of the law but don't want to obey all those laws, and a lot of motorists don't know what the rules are and resent having to share the road," Foster said.

One of the most telling letters in the wake of Doheny's column came from a member of the bicycle group that staged a May memorial ride down Pacific Coast Highway to commemorate a fellow rider who had died after being hit by a woman in a sport-utility vehicle. (The driver has been charged with vehicular manslaughter.)

We had asked organizers for comment after alert readers asked why a photo on Highway 1's cover, which was taken from the ride, showed bicyclists spread out across two lanes of the coast road when the column clearly spelled out the California Vehicle Code requirement that bicycle riders stay as close as practical to the right-hand curb.

The response correctly pointed out that "as practical" is the operative term. Bicyclists often have to pull away from the curb to avoid debris, parked cars and other obstacles, and motorists need to leave room and not crowd them.

But then he stuck his foot in it by commenting that "it is not feasible for a large group of cyclists to ride single file, [and] the law does not seem to be well-thought-out with respect to groups of bicycle riders."

If that's the case, let's change the law. But disregarding the rules because you don't like them is guaranteed to drive a wedge between motorists and cyclists.

That, though, wasn't all. The worst came a paragraph later when the writer stated:

"With respect to running red lights, if you ride a bicycle very much you quickly figure out that stopping at all red lights and stop signs does not make sense."

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