Apr. 29, 2012
VEYO – When he gears up for a ride down state Route 18 on his bicycle, Las Vegas resident Corey Jennings has mixed feelings.
On one hand, he is about to embark on one of the most scenic stretches of road in the entire Southwest, a downhill path that includes a spectacular view of Snow Canyon State Park.
On the other hand, he expects at least a few tense moments where motorists speed past, coming within inches of his bike. There is a very real possibility he could end up forced off the side of the road and injured – or worse.
“It’s just scary. There’s no other way to say it,” Jennings said last week while stopped at a gas station in Veyo, 15 miles north of St. George. “You’re always taking a risk any time you ride a bike with traffic around. That’s a given. But riding here can get pretty bad.”
That inherent danger is a part of life for the thousands of cyclists who have taken to Southern Utah highways and streets in recent years. Always a destination for cyclists because of the scenic views, the number of bicycles has increased dramatically in recent years with increased tourism promotion and the creation of the Ironman St. George triathlon, which is scheduled for Saturday.
But a lack of awareness, and sometimes a lack of respect, has both motorists and cyclists feeling frustrated.
Cyclists in general feel that motorists are ignorant of the laws pertaining to bicycles, especially on two points – that cyclists have a right to be in a lane if it is unsafe to travel on the shoulder, and that they are allowed to travel two abreast if vehicles are able to safely pass them.
Cyclists have also seen a growing hostility toward them on the roadways, with drivers often intentionally coming close to hitting them, yelling and throwing things out of a window, or even stopping and getting out of the vehicle to start an altercation, said a group of triathletes interviewed last week.
On one recent ride, St. George resident Heath Burchinal said he had five altercations with drivers in the same night, mostly with motorists who thought he shouldn’t be riding after dark – by law cyclists can ride at night as long as they have visible lights or reflectors.
Law enforcement can help by enforcing the laws in place, but most of the time it comes down to the driver and the cyclist, said Ryan Duckworth, president of the Southern Utah Triathlon Club.
Motorists, on the other hand, are irritated by having to slow from highway speeds to wait for a chance to pass cyclists, and they argue that many cyclists are breaking laws as well, frequently riding in the lane or more than two abreast when it seems unnecessary, cutting across traffic to turn, running stop signs and otherwise putting themselves and others at risk.
Pete Burroughs, an Enterprise resident who commutes to St. George for work, said that cyclists may be following the law for the most part, but they have created a real safety issue on some area highways. When driving up and down state Route 18, Burroughs said he frequently sees traffic flow interrupted because of cyclists, and vehicles passing cyclists are constantly crossing over into the opposite lane.
“I could see something happening there, easy,” he said. “You’re going to have somebody get run off the road and hurt real bad or even killed. It’s just a bad situation.”
Nothing major has happened yet this year in Washington County – no major injuries or deaths related to accidents involving cyclists – but there have been instances of cyclists being run off the road, and many of them think it’s just a matter of time.
According to state crash reports, there are about 850 accidents per year involving cyclists in Utah, and on average six cyclists are killed each year in the state. In 2010, there were 773 cyclists hit by motor vehicles, with 680 people injured and seven killed.
By far the most frequent cause of those crashes (43 percent) was drivers failing to yield the right of way to cyclists, and more than half of motor vehicles that hit cyclists were turning.
Most of those incidents happened on busy streets in northern Utah, but as the popularity of recreational riding has increased in scenic Southern Utah, officials have turned their attention to places like Washington County.
A statewide effort called Road Respect has been pushed the last several years to try and deal with the issue. State officials and some nonprofit advocacy groups have worked together on the campaign, which has focused on raising awareness of what the rules and etiquettes are for both drivers and cyclists.
Scott Lyttle, executive director of Bike Utah, a nonprofit based in Salt Lake City, said Southern Utah has seen a large increase in cyclists since the inception of the Ironman event, and Washington County has moved up to the top tier of regions when it comes to the focus of the Road Respect effort.
In June, cyclists from across the state are scheduled to start up their annual awareness tour, and they’ll finish in St. George, he said. In the fourth annual Utah Bike Summit, scheduled Friday in Salt Lake City, Southern Utah is likely to get some attention as well, he said.
“First and foremost, we’re working on the education part – building the awareness and the relationships between cyclists and motorists,” he said.
The effort seems to be working, at least according to a pair of surveys done in 2010 and 2011 by the Utah Department of Public Safety to gauge how well Utahns knew the traffic laws regarding bicycles.
In Dec. 2010, only 20 percent of respondents knew that motorists are required to give cyclists three feet of space when passing them. After months of campaigning by the Road Respect effort, that figure had climbed to 37 percent in Aug. 2011.
The 2010 survey also found that only 43 percent of Utahns knew the state even had specific laws regarding cyclists. By the time of the 2011 survey, it had risen to 55 percent.
Still, drivers and cyclists agreed that there is a long way to go, and there are some hurdles to cross along the way.
Cyclists said the biggest issue for them in many cases is a lack of room to operate. The shoulders on many local roads are narrow and often full of debris, making it unsafe to travel at speeds that sometimes exceed 30 miles per hour. By law, they can then move into the roadway, but that is where conflicts with drivers start.
Larger shoulders would be nice, but they are sometimes difficult to justify given the costs involved, especially at a time when budgets are tight, said Evelyn Tuddenham, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the Utah Department of Transportation.
“It’s always a balancing act, especially when we look at funding, so we look at things we can do, the low-hanging fruit. Where can we add shoulders or bicycling signs and really make a difference?” she said.
UDOT is working with municipal and county governments across the state to try and plan ahead so that the right infrastructure is in place to accommodate cyclists, Tuddenham said, with the ultimate goal of creating a system where cyclists always have a way to get from point A to point B safely.
As that plan is proceeding, and even when it is largely in place, the real key is going to be a mutual understanding and respect between cyclists and motorists, Tuddenham said.
Colleen Rue, another St. George resident, said cyclists naturally get angry with what they see as a lack of understanding on the part of drivers, but ultimately the real issue is safety.
“We just really don’t want to get hit by cars,” Rue said. “We don’t want it to get to a point where a cyclist gets killed.”
As Southern Utah continues to grow as a destination for outdoor recreation and cycling, motorists are going to have to get used to the idea, she said.
“It’s not like it’s going away. People are not going to get off the road,” she said.
Know the rules
Under state law, bicycles are considered vehicles, and cyclists are granted the same rights and subject to the same provisions as operators of any other vehicles. Some basic rules to remember include:
* Ride in the same direction as traffic, obey traffic signals, stop signs and all other traffic control devices.
* Ride as far to the right as possible, except when passing another bike or vehicle, preparing to turn left or if conditions are unsafe.
* Ride no more than two abreast, and then only if it does not impede traffic.
* Signal any intentions to turn or change lanes at least two seconds before doing so.
* Yield to pedestrians and give an audible signal when overtaking them.
* Wear visible lights or reflectors when riding in the dark.
* Give cyclists three feet of distance when passing.
* Remember that cyclists are allowed to occupy a lane for a number of reasons, such as if they are avoiding unsafe conditions on the right-hand edge of the roadway.
* Yield to bicycles when turning right or left through their lane of travel.
* Signal any intention to turn or change lanes at least two seconds before doing so.