Respect Is a Two-Way Street

Knoxville works to prevent increasing clashes between bicyclists and motorists

Whether it's because of the recent surge in gas prices or Lance Armstrong's popularity, there are more bicycles and bicyclists on Knoxville's streets than in years past. The trend is difficult to quantify, because they're not registered, and many of these vehicles have been returned to service from basements and garages, rather than being trackable by new sales. Regardless, motorists and cyclists of all sorts using the streets and roads must interact with each other, whether it's at intersections or in passing. Recent clashes and crashes are motivating local planners, police, and organizations to take steps to make that interaction safer.

With cycling advocates in city hall and the police department, as well as new state legislation to protect bicyclists, Knoxville is doing its best to accommodate a group that is bound to continue to grow. Traffic incidents involving motor vehicles and bicycles are on the rise; illustrative of the "newness" of the problem, or at least the city's awareness of it, those incidents have only been tracked and analyzed beginning this year.

Some of Knoxville's cyclists are seasoned and confident and some are not. It's the latter group that causes the greatest concern among police, planners, motorists and bicycling advocates. They don't necessarily know that they should always ride in the same direction as car traffic, wear a helmet, have lights on front and back. Though there's currently no law against it, they don't know not to ride their bicycles on sidewalks. (Granted, what should be done is an area as gray as the pavement. Some cyclists will continue to scoff at the need for helmets, just as some will always feel safer on the sidewalk and continue to toodle along on them.) They don't necessarily know that they have the same rights and responsibilities as any motor vehicle on the road.

Last July, after breaking two bones in his hand and an ankle upon impact with a car, cyclist Jay Smelser was launched some 50 feet and landed in a lawn along Neubert Springs Road. His collision with the car that turned left, illegally from a side street, in front of his bicycle also opened a wound roughly the size of his hand on his right thigh, and he was bleeding heavily. Still, his friend, who was also injured by hitting the same car, had to restrain Smelser in order to keep him from confronting the teenage motorist.

While waiting for the ambulance to arrive, Smelser says, "I heard the officer apologize to the kid because he had to write him a ticket for failure to yield."

Accidents like Smelser's are fortunately uncommon, likewise accidents resulting in the death of a cyclist. Smelser is a mechanic at The Bike Zoo, in Western Plaza. Although he's recovered almost completely, apart from a large scar on his leg, he can no longer bring himself to ride his bike on the road. He was without health insurance at the time of his accident, and the driver's insurance company paid $25,000 toward his medical expenses, which exceeded $50 thousand.

It's far more common for a motorist to hit or compromise the safety of a cyclist and not stop at all, and tales of such incidents are legion among those who pedal. The truck driver who hit Ellen Zavisca's bicycle, while she was stopped at an Edgewood stop sign, didn't even slow down.

"A truck turned left going way too fast," says Zavisca. "The truck hit my front wheel, and since I was standing over my bike, that knocked the bike into me. So I got pretty bruised up. His mirror hit my face and helmet. I lost a tooth, and suffered from a loss of short term memory that lasted for several days."

Zavisca is a Transportation Planner at Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization. Her particular specialty is pedestrian traffic, but as a bicycle commuter she's well aware of cyclists' concerns, and the need for greater understanding. Zavisca is fielding calls on behalf of Kelley Segars, the regular bike program coordinator, who is currently taking time off. Segars has also been hit by a car while on her bicycle, stopped at a Knoxville stop sign. And it was cyclist Segars' arrival at the TPO, in 2001, that prompted the group's implementation of a bicycle program.

"The first big challenge is to get everyone to follow the rules of the road," Zavisca says. "You also have to have on-street bike facilities, like bike lanes. Whenever a road is worked on, bike lanes should be incorporated. Cumberland was designed with wide lanes, to accommodate cars and bicycles."

Knoxville does make use of bike lanes, in scattered locations across the city map. It's not yet possible for a bicycle to cross town entirely on designated bike lanes. Dr. Dana Taylor, trauma surgeon at UT Medical Center, says research on the subject shows that two factors have been shown to cause decreases in fatalities involving bicycles: bike lanes and the use of helmets.

The rules of the road as they pertain to bicycles are not common knowledge among cyclists or non-cyclists. There are bicycle safety-related questions on the Tennessee driver's license exam. But if a driver got his or her first license decades ago and has simply renewed in the meantime, he or she might not be aware, for example, that it is a Class C misdemeanor in Tennessee for a motorist or motorcyclist to pass a bicycle by less than three feet.

Keith Webb is Education Director for the Jeff Roth Cycling Foundation (named after the Maryville bicyclist who was struck by a truck and killed in 2006). It was the JRCF that pushed through the legislation creating Tennessee's three foot law, which passed in spring of last year.

"If motorists would consider that a cyclist is simply using a different mode of transportation," says Webb. "Obviously there are exceptions, but most drivers would never pass another car so closely that they risk hitting it."

Webb says the goal is a greater level of mutual respect. "Motorists need to apply the same rules and respect to bicyclists that they do to other motorists. And cyclists need to respect motorists. If traffic is backing up behind a bicycle because the road's narrow and it's unsafe to pass, it's OK for the cyclist to pull over and let the cars go by.

"Respect is a two-way street."

From behind the handlebars, there is often the sense that in the eyes of motorists, bicyclists do not merit space on the pavement. Or that they are simply invisible.

"There needs to be more awareness of the general public," says Smelser. "Bicycles are vehicles. Some people commute by bicycle out of necessity. Cyclists have rights. I have a wife. I have a family, same as you. It's just kind of sad."

"I'm hearing more anecdotes about road rage these days," says Zavisca. "And I experience it. People shout at me, ‘Get on the sidewalk.' I say, I don't belong on the sidewalk."

She would know; Zavisca, Segars and Webb are bicycle safety instructors, certified by the League of American Bicyclists, and offer training courses to the public, twice a year.

"One of the things we try to teach people," Zavisca says, "is to operate a bicycle like any other vehicle. Be visible. Signal when you turn. Control your lane. I see cyclists hugging the curb to avoid car traffic. That makes an accident more likely. As a vehicle, a bicycle is entitled to be safe in that lane, even if it means cars have to go slower."

Very rare indeed is the case where a driver does not kill or seriously injure a cyclist, but is still held accountable. William James Johnson was cycling on Broadway this August with a friend. After verbally harassing the cyclists from behind, driver David Harvey swerved while passing, striking Johnson in the back with his vehicle's mirror. There were multiple witnesses, and Harvey was arrested later that same day at his home. He's scheduled to stand trial against charges of aggravated assault later this month.

Lt. Robert Hubbs of the Knoxville Police Department patrols the Central Business District downtown, often on bicycle. Downtown has more of everything lately, including bicyclists. What Hubbs and his police department colleagues have been noticing in particular is the increasing number of inexperienced cyclists and even scofflaws. In order to protect everyone in motion downtown, he's faced with the prospect of issuing citations to cyclists who run red lights or zip against traffic on a one-way street. (Speaking of the other side of the coin, Hubbs was recently driving, stopped at a signal, when a cyclist ran the red light and grazed his vehicle.)

"Cyclists have to have common sense," says Hubbs. "Tennessee is still sort of a rural state. Not everyone recognizes that a bicycle is a vehicle."

Hubbs says that the problem for him and his downtown colleagues stems from the simple increase in the number of cyclists.

"You used to see maybe one person ride their bike the wrong way on a one-way block," he says, for example. "No big deal. Now more people are doing it, maybe six in an hour's time, and it's a hazard for them and the drivers.

"If a cyclist is doing stupid or dangerous things, maybe a ticket would help them and others understand what the rules of the road are. We need to start enforcing the rules of the road for bicycles. I don't know that a big ticket-writing campaign would be the best thing."

Hubbs says, "I hope people understand that we're open to suggestions and constructive feedback. If there's something we can do better, we want to do that." m

Read more about the "three foot" law at jeffrothcyclingfoundation.org.

Lt. Hubbs invites suggestions at RHubbs@cityofknoxville.org.

Learn more about Knoxville's bicycling safety programs and initiatives, as well as routes, group rides and networking resources at knoxtrans.org/plans/bikeprog/resource.htm.