Learning to navigate the dangerous daily interactions between bicyclists and motorists.
Biking home along the Capital Crescent Trail one day last fall, I came upon a stream of yellow police tape encircling the Little Falls Parkway crossing. For bike commuters, cars and their drivers are the ever-present threat. Yellow tape means the worst. The victim that day was Ned Gaylin, a retired University of Maryland professor, killed when one car driver stopped to let him pass but another motorist did not.
I slowly navigated around the tape, telling police along the way that no one should be surprised. The intersection was clearly unsafe, as I’d told Montgomery County officials many times, largely because of a design that needlessly gave cars two lanes in each direction.
The officers offered sympathy for Gaylin and his family but indicated that the driver was unlikely to face charges. One officer said the roadway existed before the trail did. Others explained that a bicycle is legally a vehicle and therefore had no right-of-way in the crosswalk carrying the Capital Crescent Trail across Little Falls Parkway.
A few minutes later and a mile or so to the east, riding along Leland Street, I approached Connecticut Avenue. I started across, pausing for two cars heading northbound. Both cars slowed, a clear invitation for me to pass. I began to do that, but a third vehicle approached, gunning the engine in a clear attempt to head me off. Given his distance, there probably was time to make it, but it didn’t seem worth the risk.
As he closed in, I yelled out in frustration and futile protest at what seemed to be yet another of the daily acts of intimidation bicyclists encounter.
These games of chicken — tons of fast-moving metal against a solitary defenseless human — are routine. There’s a wide variety of ways to handle them, and I admire my biking friends who manage to grin and ignore it.
Sometimes the drivers don’t mean any harm. Sometimes they’re willingly distracted by their phone or someone in the car. And other times, it’s pretty clear they’re just angry — angry at the traffic, angry at a passenger, angry at whatever.
Given that power relationship, car drivers routinely dispense free advice to bicyclists on matters of road safety and take great offense at any reversal of their motor-given authority. The driver on Connecticut responded by slamming on his brakes, blocking me from crossing the road and then getting out and shoving me to the ground. He jumped back in his SUV and sped off.
I’ve been a daily bike commuter for about 10 years, for a variety of reasons. Increasingly, the most important is my health: I’m facing a kidney transplant because of an inherited disease and keeping active is especially critical to my long-term survival.
Each day I get on the bike is a little tougher as the disease progresses. Co-workers are often amazed that I and others bike regardless of weather conditions. But by far, the greatest concern — the thing that makes me pause each day before setting out from home — is the threat posed by car drivers.
I’m far more often slowed by cars while riding a bike than slowed by bikes while driving a car. And even if momentarily inconvenienced by a bicyclist, a car driver gets an overall benefit from that bicyclist not putting another car on the road.
It’s really that simple: Car drivers could reduce the aggravating congestion they face each day if they made bicyclists feel safer rather than doing what they can to make them feel menaced.
After the SUV driver on Connecticut Avenue sped off, I called the police and provided the driver’s vehicle information. The police showed little interest in finding him. One officer chose to berate me, saying a bicycle is not a vehicle and therefore did not have a right to cross Connecticut at Leland.
Back at the Capital Crescent Trail, the police who had just given me the exact opposite bike-vehicle interpretation did show one consistency with their counterpart at Connecticut Avenue: blame the bicyclist. For several days, the police stationed themselves along the trail, stopping bicyclists to chastise them on bike safety, leaving the cars on Little Falls Parkway to race past the scene.
There has been some progress. County officials installed barricades that limit Little Falls Parkway to a single lane in each direction. This prompted grumbling from some motorists, but in reality it does little to slow their cars because the road is a single lane just a block away.
And this month, with almost no help from the county police, a county prosecutor won a ruling against the motorist who assaulted me. He was sentenced to 10 days in jail, suspended pending successful completion of probation and eight hours of community service.
During the trial, the driver’s lawyer repeatedly and falsely suggested that a bicyclist had no legal right to cross Connecticut at Leland because no crosswalk was present. The county prosecutor didn’t challenge the contention, apparently because assault would not have been justified either way.
But for bicyclists looking for encouragement from their government and from their fellow motorists — or at least some measure of even-handed treatment — there remains no clear verdict.
The Capital Crescent Trail in Bethesda.