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Drivers, bicyclists have uneasy relationship in East Iowa

The Gazette: Drivers, bicyclists have uneasy relationship in East Iowa

Officials urge all to follow rules of the road

by Gregg Hennigan :: UPDATED: 22 July 2011 | 8:23 pm 

RAGBRAI riders will often have the road to themselves during the weeklong event that starts Sunday — which is just fine with some motorists.

Bikes are a common sight on roads, with people using them for recreation, exercise and commuting. That’s left some motor vehicle drivers annoyed.

“They don’t follow the right law or they don’t pay attention to cars,” said Becky Love of Coralville, giving voice to commonly heard complaints.

Bicyclists in turn share stories of cars passing them within inches or being yelled at. And they are quick to note they have the same rights as a motor vehicle.

“It is my feeling that cyclists are safer on the road when they act like they’re a vehicle and they’re treated like a vehicle, albeit a slow-moving vehicle,” said Nate Van Der Weide, president of the Bicyclists of Iowa City bike club.

About 10,000 cyclists will ride across Iowa in the annual RAGBRAI event. The route is not closed, but motorists are discouraged from using it.

Throughout the year, though, cyclists and drivers must share the road.

Stats on the number of cyclists in Iowa are hard to come by, but representatives from the Iowa Department of Transportation, area law enforcement agencies and bicycle groups said biking is increasing in popularity. The reasons include recreation and exercise, choosing an environmentally friendly mode of transportation and high gas prices, they said.

There’s also more infrastructure in place, like bike lanes and trails, and encouragement from governments. Iowa City has been named a Bicycle Friendly Community by the League of American Bicyclists, and Cedar Rapids has tried to get the designation.

Despite there being more bikes, road rage is not a big problem in Iowa, officials agreed.

Crash numbers constant

The number of bicycle-motor vehicle crashes and injuries has stayed fairly constant since 2001, each hovering mostly in the 400s, according to data from the Iowa Department of Transportation.

An analysis found more than half of the 273 documented on-street bicycle collisions in Johnson County between 2001 and 2007 involved cyclists 22 and younger and were most prevalent in August and September, the start of the school year, according to the Metropolitan Planning Organization of Johnson County.

Mark Wyatt, executive director of the Iowa Bicycle Coalition and an Iowa City resident, said he thinks it’s the rhetoric, not bicyclist-motorist confrontations, that has increased, perhaps fueled by easier access to the Internet and social media.

Sgt. John Phipps, who runs the Cedar Rapids Police Department’s bike patrol and is an avid bicyclist himself, agreed.

“There’s definitely bicyclists that feel like they’ve not had cars share the road, they’ve come too close, they’ve made inappropriate gestures,” he said. “And I field phone calls, occasionally, from motorists who say that bikes are out in the middle of the street three abreast, running through red lights and not stopping. So it’s a little bit of a two-way street there.”

Iowa City Police Sgt. Denise Brotherton said cyclists must share the responsibility of keeping roads safe by following traffic laws, but motorists need to remember they’re the ones who can do greater harm.

“No one needs to die because they made you mad because they didn’t use the bike trail,” she said.

Same rights

By law, cyclists have the same rights as motorists, but they also have to follow the same rules, said Milly Ortiz, the bicycle and fitness coordinator for the Iowa Department of Transportation.

Having more bikes on streets may cause some friction, but it also creates more awareness, she said.

Education plays a role, and the state has a “share the road” program. Among its tips are having drivers use extra caution when passing bicycles and not honking at them, and reminding cyclists to ride in the right lane and obey traffic signs and signals.

State law also requires that driver education programs include lessons on sharing the road with bicycles and motorcycles.

Chris Rolwes, owner of Safe Driver Driver’s Education in Cedar Rapids, has his students review materials about sharing the road and, while driving, teaches them to be mindful of cyclists. He also tells them that some cyclists, like motorists, don’t always follow traffic laws.

“There’s the rules of the road, and then there’s the rules of the road,” he said.

Karl Moscrip, owner of Hall Bicycle Co. in Cedar Rapids, said even if only a small number of riders don’t obey traffic laws, it reflects poorly on all cyclists and could make motorists less tolerant.

“Cyclists have a right” to be on the road, he said, “but we also have a responsibility.”

The Iowa Bicycle Coalition’s Wyatt said there’s a growing debate on how traffic rules affect cyclists. In Idaho, for example, cyclists can treat red lights as stop signs and stop signs as yield signs, which he said considers how cyclists travel through intersections differently from motorists.

He also said it’s not just Iowa cyclists who run the occasional light.

“Cedar Rapids wouldn’t be putting in red-light cameras if they didn’t have a motorists-running-a-red-light problem,” he said.

Rules of the road

For bicyclists

Know and obey Iowa’s traffic laws: Bicyclist have the same rights and responsibilities as motor vehicle drivers, including fines for those who violate traffic laws.
Ride on the right and with traffic: Never ride against traffic.
Use a light at night: A white light in front and a red light in back are required.
Ride only where permitted: Cyclists are allowed to ride on almost all Iowa roads with the exception of interstates and certain “controlled-access” highways.
Use hand and arm signals: Proper signals are made with the left arm.

For motorists

Do not honk your horn at bicyclists.
Use extra caution when passing bicycles.
Bicyclists might swerve to avoid road hazards.
Be careful when opening vehicle door.
When in doubt, yield to bicycles.

Source: Iowa Department of Transportation