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Injured bicyclist hopes to raise awareness of safety issues

Tulsa World: Injured bicyclist hopes to raise awareness of safety issues

By ZACK STOYCOFF World Staff Writer
Published: 11/7/2011  

A nudge from a passing vehicle threw John Stehr from his bicycle and into a parked car's window, where he slumped onto the street and waited for help from the driver.

The glass severed his jugular vein. With no one in sight, he called police on his blood-covered cell phone. Then he passed out.

"I hated that I was this low, but I just remember thinking, why?" he said after surgery last week. "I guess it's very possible that they didn't know they hit me."

The hit-and-run incident happened on Stehr's daily commute to work Oct. 24, and has been a popular discussion among Tulsa cyclists - especially for bicycle commuters, cycling enthusiasts say.

Stehr and his sister, Christina Stehr, said they hope it causes a stir among motorists, too.

"I don't think drivers understand how powerful their vehicles are," Christina Stehr said. "It does not take but a bump from a car to kill someone on a bike."

John Stehr said a speeding SUV or truck swiped his bicycle as he rode to work at Whole Foods Market, 1401 E. 41st St. He apparently crashed head-first into the back of a car that was parked on the side of the street and shattered its back window, police said.

"It's a pretty common conversation at this point," said Brian DuVall, a bicycle commuter who works at T-Town Bicycles. "People question how it happened."

The hit by the speeding vehicle - a detail not immediately known by police - makes the story more plausible, DuVall said.

Collisions between vehicles and bicycles are less common than auto-pedestrian accidents in Tulsa, police said. But DuVall, who was nearly injured by a driver while riding a bicycle recently, said cyclists are all too aware of the danger.

Two cyclists have been killed and 214 injured in accidents statewide so far this year, according to preliminary data from the Oklahoma Highway Safety Office. Eight were killed last year and 11 died in 2009.

"Bicycling is becoming more and more every year a popular sport, a popular piece of travel," Tulsa Police Officer Jason Willingham said. "They have every right to be on the road, but they go slower and I think it upsets motorists."

While accidents involving bicycles are relatively uncommon, it's common for motorists to yell, threaten violence or throw objects at cyclists, he said.

DuVall said a motorist recently swerved into him on his way to work and shouted obscenities.

Christina Stehr, also a cycling enthusiast, said her brother's incident is inspiring people to raise awareness about such behavior. She's also mulling ways to get the word out about cyclists' rights on the road.

"There's been people I've talked to who say they want to ride now. They say we need to raise awareness of what's out there," she said.

John Stehr was released from St. Francis Hospital last week and plans to resume his normal bicycle commute, which takes him through residential streets and briefly on 41st Street. He said he has learned from the accident and hopes motorists do, too.

Finding the one who hit him is secondary, he said.

"It's not about retribution. Finding justice for one person would be selfish and futile," he said. "It would be so much better to put a heavy emphasis on driving safely and making people aware that there are people out there other than just cars.

"This is our town. Those are our streets. They should be shared equally."

He said he had lights on his bicycle when it was hit and was wearing protective gear, but plans to wear more gear when he resumes his commutes.

Cyclists are not likely to go away, police said.

"Motorists, if you don't like it, you need to start adapting your way of thinking," Willingham said. Cyclists "shouldn't have to fear going out, being hit, being yelled at and having items thrown at them when they're exercising their right to ride on the road."

Sharing is the law

DuVall said the motorist who hit him threatened him to move onto the sidewalk.

But riding a bicycle on a sidewalk is against city ordinances except in residential areas, police said.

Cyclists not only must ride on the road in business districts, but they have the right of way, Willingham said. Vehicles can pass them when it is reasonably safe, he said.

"Take a second, slow down, take a deep breath and when you see a safe location to pass those bicyclists, make the pass at that time," he said.

Meanwhile, cyclists should ride on the right side of the right lane and use common sense in determining which streets are unsafe for riding, he said.

Cyclists technically are allowed to ride on any city or county street, but narrow streets with no shoulders should be avoided for safety reasons if possible - perhaps by using the city's trail system, he said. Cycling is illegal on turnpikes and where signs forbid it.

State law requires cyclists to obey all traffic lights and road signs, including stop signs and yield signs. And unless the speed limit is under 25, bicycles after dark must have a red light in the back and a white light in the front - not just reflectors.

The laws are designed to protect bicyclists, and motorists should have that outlook at all times, Christina Stehr said.

"Being late for work, for a meeting or school is not nearly as important as the life of the person riding a bike in front of you," she said, adding that her brother was hit just blocks from Wright Elementary School.

"It could have been an 11-year-old."