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Bicycle crash sparks debate

The Augusta Chronicle: Bicycle crash sparks debate

Cyclist remains in critical condition from collision

By Kyle Martin
Staff Writer
Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2010

Simmering tension over sharing the road has boiled over since an SUV struck five bicyclists and critically injured one rider Friday.

The online reaction was swift, and comments on www.augustachronicle.com illustrate the divide:

"No one likes to get behind a slow poke much less bikes doing less than 15MPH ... The decent thing to do is for bikes to stay off such roads and if takes a law to make it happen, then I'm all for it!" poster TK3 wrote Monday.

"If you are in a large vehicle and you let your attention lapse for any reason, then you are taking the responsibility to willingly cause harm to others who may also be sharing the road," pommom38 added later.

The source of the rancor happened Friday evening as Matthew Burke, a 37-year-old orthopedic surgeon, traveled in a group of about 15 bicyclists on rural Beech Island Avenue in Aiken County. Burke suffered severe head injuries when he was struck from behind by a vehicle driven by 41-year-old Daniel Johnson, according to the South Carolina Highway Patrol.

Burke remained in critical condition Tuesday.

Regardless of people's opinions on sharing the road, Georgia and South Carolina clearly spell out the responsibilities of motorists and cyclists. Both states consider bicycles vehicles, meaning they can ride on the road and must stop at stop signs and other traffic signals.

Both states require cyclists to ride as close to the right of the lane as possible and do not allow more than two cyclists to ride abreast in the lane. South Carolina requires cyclists to signal turns or stops with their hands unless doing so compromises safety.

South Carolina revamped its law in 2008 and led the nation in adding an anti-harassment clause that prohibits motorists from taunting or throwing objects at bicyclists. That's a criminal offense, as opposed to the civil traffic citation that comes from following a bicycle too closely.

Laws won't do any good until people start changing attitudes, said Rachael Kefalos, the executive director of the Palmetto Cycling Coalition.

Kefalos is often asked what kinds of changes have come about since 2008, but she said it's still too soon to tell. Kefalos commutes to work on a bicycle and rides recreationally on the weekends. At least once a month, she has a close call with a motorist.

"Honestly, I think the last thing we'll be able to reform is perception and attitude," she said.

Peter Wilborn, a South Carolina attorney who represents injured bicyclists, said the problem is not a perceived tension on the road but a lack of infrastructure, such as dedicated bicycle lanes.

Cycling's popularity is growing along with traffic, but the roads are not built to meet that demand, he said.

When municipalities and states correct the problem, tension disappears, Wilborn said. Angry comments only exacerbate a situation and do not represent an accurate gauge of the community's temperament, he added.

Bicyclist Johnathan Tisdale agrees with that statement, to a point. By and large, both motorists and bicyclists respectfully share the road and get along fine, he said. Twice, though, he's struck a car that pulled out in front of him because the driver wasn't paying attention.

"I don't think people have ill intent. They just don't realize the road is there to be shared," he said.

Richmond County's rate of wrecks between cars and bicycles has caught the attention of the advocacy group Georgia Bikes.

Signs will be placed on certain roadsides warning motorists that the area is frequented by bicyclists, Executive Director Brent Buice said.

Georgia Bikes is funding the project for Augusta and other metropolitan areas in Georgia through a grant from the Georgia Governor's Office of Highway Safety.

The grant went into effect Oct. 1, and work is already under way, Buice said.

Randy DuTeau, a longtime bicyclist and sports development manager for the Augusta Sports Council, wants a meaningful dialogue to come out of the wreck that put his good friend in the hospital.

The focus should not be on pointing fingers, but on Burke and steps that both motorists and bicyclists can take to remain safe, DuTeau said. "It's really difficult to watch his family and see the anguish it's causing them," he said.