Learn­ing to nav­i­gate the dan­ger­ous daily in­ter­ac­tions be­tween bi­cy­clists and mo­torists.

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - PAUL BASKEN CHEVY CHASE

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.

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