Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Death of a Cyclist

Last week, bicyclist Nathaniel Williams, 23, was killed by a motorist in Tuftonboro. My deepest sympathies go out to his family.

When a cyclist death is reported on the news, we riders listen a moment, usually to hear that it’s a motorcyclist, not a bicyclist, or that it was in a distant town, an unhelmeted child, someone riding against traffic. It’s sad, but it isn’t someone we know.

This time was different. The rider was local. I did not know Nathaniel Williams well, but I know people who knew him better. He was supposedly a good cyclist, a young man, properly equipped and capable.

As I understand it from news reports and one of the emergency personnel responding to the accident, Williams was riding fast, in the dusk, without lights, when a motorist turned left in front of him. As summer days shorten, cyclists can get caught out at dusk.

Road cyclists have to assert themselves to get the right of way the law grants them, but that motorists often seem reluctant to concede. Be bold, but not foolhardy. Refuse to back down. If Afghans and Iraqis can risk death just to go to the polls to claim what should be the routine right to vote, we cyclists can face the much lesser peril of claiming the routine right to use the roads for which we all pay taxes.

At sunset, the rules change, even if the laws don’t. Even with the lights and reflectors required by law, a bicyclist is far less visible to motorists than they are to him. Right of way no longer exists, because the rider no longer exists. Out of sight, out of mind.

It’s easy for a rider to forget how cut off a person is in the sensory deprivation tanks we call automobiles. A driver looks for objects as large or larger than the vehicle the driver is operating. As dusk deepens into night, the driver looks for lights, big, bright lights.

When cyclist and motorist are going the same direction, the rider is the safest, because the motorist is looking ahead, seeking the red tail lights of vehicles in the same lane. A blinking beacon and moving pedal reflectors catch the driver’s eye. But when rider approaches driver from the opposite direction the danger increases sharply, lights or not.

We riders can forget this all too easily. Even in daylight we have to remember that a driver may misjudge our speed and try to shoot a gap that we’re already filling.

Motorcyclists will tell you that even with their much larger headlights and greater speed, drivers overlook them with terrifying, if not tragic, consequences. A light large enough to stand out against a busy background will require a generator or a battery weighing several pounds.

When I commuted year-round in an urban area, it was over short distances, usually less than ten miles each way, on relatively flat ground. My commuting bike had a generator light permanently installed, with a battery backup that provided power when my speed would not turn the generator fast enough to produce bright light. The rig weighed at least an extra pound, and the generator produced resistance equal to a harder gear. It made the bike harder to ride, but the security at night was worth it. But it was only as good as the vigilance of drivers looking at it and my own defensive driving.

The scary thing is, we all get careless. It’s so easy to forget that the approaching vehicle in the opposite lane could cut across. Bicyclists want to maintain momentum, so we make the decision to keep pedaling and maintain our speed sooner than perhaps we should.

As a courtesy, cyclists work around the limitations of drivers until such time as driver education finally catches up with all the responsibilities that go with operating a huge chunk of steel at a high rate of speed. We would certainly produce much better drivers if they would not receive their license until they had completed a full year using a bicycle as transportation.

Meanwhile, the death toll from human haste includes everything from salamanders to critters the size of raccoons, to deer, moose and humans. And that doesn’t even include the casualties from wars to seize natural resources from abroad. Our cars leave a trail of blood we have yet to acknowledge.

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