September 22, 2013

Deirdre Fleming: Law can provide a yardstick to gauge safety for Maine cyclists

The Bicycle Coalition of Maine (BCM) touts our state as having some of the nation's most bike-friendly laws. One of the more recent is the "three-foot" law. But is it working?

This summer two cyclists were killed after being hit by motorists and a third could have easily suffered the same fate after getting struck by a passing tractor had a nurse not appeared on the scene.

Since Maine's three-foot law went into effect in 2007, the coalition has lobbied to have it more strictly enforced, and hopes to expand it so that more room is given for cyclists.

But does it help? Or does it provide a false sense of security?

Coalition Executive Director Nancy Grant called this summer a "perfect storm" of unfortunate events. And she said with more and more Mainers turning to two-wheeled transportation, bicycling inevitably will become safer in Maine.

"Drivers have become more dangerous, with texting and cell phones. There are more and more distracted drivers. It is one of the more acute problems on the roads, up there with drunken drivers," Grant said.

Yet she doesn't think making the roads safer for cyclists is an uphill battle.

"I think every new bicyclist we get out there is somebody who has a bicycle and is ready to ride. Every bicyclist we get is one more friendly motorist," Grant said.

The three-foot law that requires motorists to give cyclists three feet when passing didn't help cyclists this summer in two fatalities and at least a few debilitating accidents.

On Aug. 2, a 56-year-old Biddeford man drove his pickup truck into a family of cyclists, killing the father and critically injuring a toddler.

David Labonte was charged with manslaughter and aggravated drunken driving after the crash that killed Jamerico Elliott, 52, of Biddeford and injured his 17-month-old son, Lavarice, who was riding in a car seat on the back. The child's mother, Melodie Brennan, also was hit and suffered a broken ankle.

And a cyclist riding in the Trek Across Maine fundraiser was killed June 14 when he fell and was run over by the rear wheel of a tractor-trailer in Hanover. David LeClair, 23, of Watertown, Mass., was killed almost instantly, police said.

On Aug. 18, a bicyclist traveling along Route 2 in Passadumkeag, north of Bangor, had his leg severed by a lawn mower blade that cut into him as a truck carrying the tractor passed too closely.

Police said a nurse traveling Route 2 probably saved the life of the victim, a man in his 50s, who likely would have bled to death in what was deemed a "freak accident."

One incident was in an urban setting in the heart of southern Maine, another was in a remote area of eastern Maine, and the other was in a rural area of western Maine – but during a highly publicized, highly visible charity ride.

However, Grant is hopeful new programs the coalition has started will spread cycling through Maine. Chief among these is the annual BikeMaine tour that concluded two weeks ago in eastern Maine. The ride that ran through Orono, Dover-Foxcroft, Belfast, Castine, Bar Harbor and Ellsworth not only introduced Maine to bicycle tourists, it also celebrated biking in these communities.

"We have six to seven goals. One is to increase the profile of bicycling in the state, and also bike touring and bike tourism in the state," Grant said.

"Bike tourists are great visitors. Generally, they're happy and they've just done something for free all day, so they usually spend money, and – they're hungry."

Building on the charity day rides it's held for years, the coalition now has a long-distance, weeklong tour to not only introduce out-of-state cyclists to Maine, but also to introduce cycling to Mainers who don't ride.

The ride next year will travel to a different part of Maine and showcase several communities.

"BCM is all about making Maine safer for bicyclists, and the more mainstream we make cycling, the easier it is to do this," Grant said.

Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

dfleming@pressherald.com

Twitter: Flemingpph

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