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Cyclist Patrick Ytsma's death has dark irony

The Lehigh Valley News: Cyclist Patrick Ytsma's death has dark irony

Paul Carpenter
6:02 p.m. EST, December 13, 2011

"Life is unfair," President John F. Kennedy said at a press conference on March 21, 1962, in the early stages of American involvement in the Vietnam War.

JFK was responding to questions about the inequities of military service, but he could have been talking about Patrick Ytsma, 53, a safety-conscious bicyclist who suffered fatal injuries last week when he was hit by a car in Bethlehem.

I was in the military when JFK made his "unfair" comment, and I was one of the lucky ones who served in relative safety while others were sent into great peril. In the decades since then, I have been reminded many times of such inequities.

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Ytsma's death is especially tragic because he was an avid cyclist who did his utmost to promote bike safety.

As reported in The Morning Call, Ytsma was "a stickler for bike safety" and was wearing a helmet and reflective gear at the time of the accident. He was hit from behind at around dusk on Dec. 4 and he died on Thursday.

He was a safety activist, it was reported, "encouraging fellow cyclists to take safety courses and follow traffic laws." On Sunday, Spencer Soper dedicated his "On the Cheap" column to something that Ytsma "embodied every time he pedaled: safety."

Soper noted that he observed Ytsma riding his bicycle over the summer and "he came to a full stop at a stop sign and used hand signals when making turns."

The news of Ytsma's accident hit me in two ways. I knew his name from contacts we had in 1992 and, when I saw his photograph last week, I recognized him as a fellow cyclist. Until his accident, I had never put that name and that face together.

In 1992, he took issue with what I said about "big-buck" architects gouging the public. "I now make $24,000 a year," wrote Ytsma, who was a licensed architect. "Thanks for enlightening me about the inequity of my 'big-buck' salary."

I put a clarification at the top of my very next column, stressing that I was referring to architects hired by school districts who typically receive 5 or 6 percent of construction projects that may run $15 million.

Later, I rode with Ytsma (without knowing his name) on bicycle tours originating at the velodrome in Trexlertown, including an annual charity event known as the "Donut Derby."

Readers familiar with my views about helmets might think Ytsma and I were at opposite ends of the safety spectrum.

Not so. I also am a fanatic about certain rules, such as stopping at stop signs and hand signals, and I use a flashing red light under my bike seat when dusk approaches.

Moreover, I always wear a helmet on group rides because of the chance of a spill if wheels overlap, and I always wore one in my bike racing days. (A helmet saved my life in a wicked crash at the velodrome.)

I never wear a helmet when riding alone, however, and I oppose, on libertarian principle, any law making helmets compulsory for cyclists of any age. The greatest evils are perpetrated by people who say, "We're doing this for your own good."

Along those lines, I have engaged in risky behavior my whole life (motorcycle racing, ice hockey, etc.), believing there is no such thing as fun without risk.

Those traits may cause many to see a painful irony in what happened to Ytsma and what has not yet happened to me.

That brings us to one other point concerning bicycle safety. I have argued loudly for years that mirrors are a far more important safety factor than helmets and I've lashed out at busybodies who only want to force others to wear clunky fun-fettering helmets. No helmet ever prevented an accident, but little mirrors (attached to the frames of sunglasses, etc.) help cyclists keep track of what's approaching from behind without turning around.

Ytsma was a fine man and his death is a tragedy. When I saw his picture, however, one of the first things I noticed was that he was wearing a helmet, but no mirror was visible and none was mentioned in any of the stories. I asked Bethlehem Police Commissioner Jason Schiffer if Ytsma had a mirror when his accident occurred.

"Yes he did," he replied. "It [his bike] was equipped with a mirror on the left handlebar." Schiffer said Ytsma also was using a flashing red light on the back of his bike when he was mowed down.

Ytsma rode a bike not only because it was fun but because he wanted to do less damage to the environment, and he took every safety measure possible — not just a helmet demanded by the busybodies.

Life is unfair.