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Friday, March 14, 2014

View of Memphis drivers may not be all bad from perspective of Memphis area cyclists

View of Memphis drivers may not be all bad from perspective of Memphis area cyclists
By:  Michael G. Lander
Memphis drivers share many of the same roads
with cyclists and they should expect to see more
of them in the years ahead.  (Photo Credit: James Hall)
Distracted, careless and dangerous..... Bad drivers seem to be everywhere and some people think that Memphis has more than its fair share of them.  Whether that's actually true or not is open for debate, but for most cyclists, their main concern is how these drivers will react and interact with them.

I often say that from my own personal experience about 98 percent of Memphis drivers seem to be courteous and careful around cyclists.  At least for the Memphis area, the available data that we currently have seems to back that up. 

Statistically, the number of vehicles hitting cyclists and the number of fatalities associated with these accidents in the Memphis area seems to be relatively low.  Since 2010, there have only been two cyclists who have been killed, with one in Midtown Memphis on August 11, 2011, another on the Hernando DeSoto Bridge on August 12, 2012, one in July 14, 2014, and two in March 2015. 

Aside from these fatalities, there have been very few reported incidents between cars and cyclists with the notable exception of one cyclist who was struck and seriously injured while riding on Wolf River Blvd in Germantown on May 23, 2010. 

As sad and as tragic as each of these incidents is, many in the community are able to find some reassurance in the fact that there have been so few injuries and fatalities between cyclists and motor vehicles over the past couple of years.  There are factors, however, that could possibly have an impact on whether or not we see any more of them in our future.

With an ever increasing number of bike lanes, and the expansion of our existing trails, I am totally convinced that we will see more and more people taking up cycling in the years ahead with some even traveling here from other places to check out what we've got.  For me, of course, that would be a great thing and something that I and many others would very much welcome. 

Some of the cyclists in downtown Memphis carry badges.  These
Public Safety and Memphis Police Officers patrol the city streets
and other areas and they offer another way of providing
assistance to both Memphis residents and tourists.
My only concern with that, however, is that we might possibly begin to also see even more serious accidents and fatalities in and around the city of Memphis as more people take to the streets and ride.  None of us, I know, want to have that happen. 

As I see it, the only way that we will be able to prevent this from occurring will be to have an even greater amount of vigilance, caution and awareness on the part of both Memphis area drivers and cyclists.  Prevention can come in the form of public services announcements or with other similar avenues, much can and should be done to avoid any cycling and motor vehicle-related injuries or accidents in the future.

Currently, one issue that I think should get more attention by vehicle operators is the need for some of them to allow for a greater separation and distance when passing cyclists.  Many drivers, I am sure, are unaware of the law requiring at least 3 feet of clearance.  Fortunately, from what I have seen, there are many drivers out there who give that much separation and more. 

Regrettably, however, there are a small number of drivers who have passed by me so closely that I often have jokingly told my friends that I could have buffed the side of their cars with my cycling shorts.

One other issue that I have encountered on my bike rides involves some drivers who pull up behind me and immediately want to pass me even when a car is quickly coming up on them from the opposite direction.  Naturally, I am concerned about this and the danger it might present, and it always seems like an unnecessary risk to me just to save a few seconds of someone's time.  

Since I don't like having traffic backed up behind me, I always try to wave cars to go ahead and pass me whenever the road ahead is clear.  I am able to see them when this happens because of a rear view mirror attached to my helmet.  This mirror is also good for seeing everything that is going on behind me, although I have often joked that it would probably only give me a few extra seconds just to see something before it hits me.

Over the last seven years of cycling, one of the things that I have come to realize is that you can't always assume that everyone understands hand signals.  There have been several occasions that I have signaled and started to move over only to be cut off. 

In these instances, I can't really tell if people are just not paying attention or if they're misinterpreting what I'm doing when I stick out my arm out, so I have found it best to never assume what someone behind the wheel is thinking or doing.  It is always better to be safe than sorry and to only make lane changes with the most extreme caution.

In less than a decade, Memphis has seen a tremendous
increase in the number of trails and bike lanes like the
ones added to Cooper Avenue in the Cooper-Young
neighborhood in Midtown Memphis.  Memphians can
expect to see a whole lot more in their future.
One other disturbing trend that I have also seen over the past seven years is just how many people appear to be distracted either by talking on their cell phones, texting or looking off somewhere other than road ahead of them.  This inattentiveness is one of the biggest dangers and risks that cyclists, pedestrians and everyone else on the road should never have to face.

Whatever it is that people are doing, I just cannot imagine that it is possibly as important as the lives of other people on the road.  I understand that life is full of risks, but it would be nice if all of us could at least eliminate some of the unnecessary ones that might be harmful to us and to others.

After riding over 19,000 miles on city streets and roads, I have come to believe that, for the most part, the majority of Memphis drivers are considerate and act with caution around cyclists.  That is not to say, however, that I haven't ever experienced a few very serious and dangerous situations along the way. 

On one occasion, I was literally run off the road and I have had a couple of folks pull right out in front of me, and some who have not yielded when I clearly had the right-of-way.  For all the times that this happened to me, though, I have felt fortunate enough that I was able to anticipate what was about to happen and was able to avoid an accident or collision.

Regardless of what the circumstances might ever be, ultimately, it is almost always going to be the cyclist who is going to be on the losing end of the deal whenever an accident involves a car.  Even though the cyclist might take some consolation in knowing that he or she was right, or that they had the right-of-way, that really won't matter all that much if the accident results in a serious injury or death.    

One other sad fact is that, legally, the consequences of hitting a cyclist does not seem to be as punitive in the eyes of the law as it should be.  Being charged with a simple misdemeanor would probably not be all that acceptable to any of us if it were a family member or close friend who was run over.  We should all be outraged when this happens, whether we know a victim or not.

One of the most common misconceptions that I run into when talking with non-cyclists is about whether or not cyclists have a right to be on the road.  Of course, the answer that I give them is always an emphatic "yes."  If anyone isn't willing to take my word for it, I often direct them to my Memphis Cyclist website so that they can see it for themselves. On the site, I have provided the driving manuals and the laws that anyone can reference concerning cyclists on the roadways for our tri-state area of Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi. 

There are also some who think that you have a death wish by taking the risks of riding on the roads and city streets, but for me, cycling is no more dangerous than most anything else that we do in our lives.  When you are riding a bike, the only thing that you must do is pay a lot more attention to what is happening around you. You don't have anything to insulate or to protect you like you do in a car and you don't always get second chances for lapses in judgment. 

In spite of whatever risks there might be, though, being the true cyclist that I am, if given the choice, I would much rather be on a bike than riding somewhere in a car.  I can see the world around me a lot better than I can from behind the steering wheel and, as I often say, it just doesn't get much better than that.

Even though a lot of people like to talk about how bad Memphis drivers are, we cannot ignore the fact that there are some cyclists who aren't doing what they should on the roads, either.  Some of them blow past stop signs and red lights, don't follow the rules of the road, and don't yield to those who have the right-of-way. 

Not only is this dangerous to them and to others, but it can leave people with the wrong impression that all cyclists are like that.  After that stigma is there, it is always difficult to erase it or to shake it off.

For their own safety, cyclists should always have situational awareness of what is happening around them and they should always have safety in mind whenever they ride.  The old saying that "you can never be too safe," has a lot of truth in it, and one lapse in judgment can have terrible and life altering consequences. 

To help put the odds in your favor, cyclists should always wear a helmet, have on bright clothing and should have reflectors and lights on their bikes.

With safety and caution in mind, Memphis drivers should be able to make room for cyclists on the roadways and, together, they can help make the roads safer for everyone.

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