When bicyclists break the safety chain, driver complaints mount

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A.J. DeMartino admires cyclists for reducing America's dependence on foreign oil, but she wasn't too keen on the one who zoomed off the Clemente Bridge through a red light, and cut in front of her car on Fort Duquesne Boulevard a few days ago.

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"I had to slam on my brakes," said Ms. DeMartino, a Downtown resident. "He could've ended up dead. ... I'm really angry at the people who don't follow the rules."

The city's announcement last Monday of the hiring of Stephen Patchan as its first bicycle and pedestrian coordinator drew cheers from the pedaling crowd, but inflamed some motorists who resent cyclists who flout the laws.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl pledged to improve enforcement of traffic laws near bike lanes -- one step in making Pittsburgh "the most bike- and pedestrian-friendly community in America."

Now, though, motorists and cyclists aren't always chummy.

"[Recently] I was coming back from Penn Hills," said Gerald Cefola, an Oakland resident and retired mechanical engineer. At Bayard and North Neville streets, he said, "here's a bicycle, goes right through a red light."

He said the cyclist cut in front of him one foot in front of his car, which had not yet started moving though the light was green.

"If I was a hot rod," he said, "that person would've had it."

The Pittsburgh Police Bureau does not have statistics on car-on-bike accidents. Mr. Ravenstahl said it will start tracking such incidents.

Mr. Patchan said it wouldn't be right to characterize cyclists as scofflaws, any more than it would be to say "that all motorists break the law."

Scott Bricker, executive director of Bike Pittsburgh, said that cyclists should "ride predictably and obey the law."

But he said the onus to avoid collisions rests most heavily on motorists.

"The real concerns are people driving 4,000-pound machines that have the ability to kill pedestrians, cyclists and people in wheelchairs," he said.

Some cyclists seem to treat all signs as optional, said Tim Weber, assistant general manager of operations for The Pitt News, who commutes from McCandless to Oakland daily.

"In 22 years of commuting to Oakland, I have never seen a cyclist stop at a red light or stop sign," he said.

"There's a physics argument on why some bikers don't stop at stop signs," Mr. Bricker said. It takes a lot of energy to get a bicycle from zero to cruising speed, he noted, so if the coast is clear, some cyclists roll on.

Idaho has recognized that, passing a law that allows cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs. It also allows those on bikes to treat red lights as stop signs.

Pennsylvania is beginning to weigh the rules of the road as they apply to bikes. State Rep. Ron Miller, R-York, has proposed legislation that would bar drivers from turning in front of cyclists that are going straight, and compel motor vehicles to give bikes a 4-foot berth when passing them.

That bill is among the subjects of a House Transportation Committee hearing on alternative transportation set for 9 a.m. tomorrow in Harrisburg.

Pennsylvania law gives cyclists all the rights and "all of the duties" of any other vehicle, with just a few exceptions. Unlike cars, bikes are allowed to use the road shoulder, and may go slower than prevailing traffic.

State law allows bicyclists to ride on sidewalks in business districts only where permission is properly posted.

Recently, while strolling on a biking and walking lane along a road in North Park, Mr. Weber said he was nearly hit by a cyclist who called him "a jackass" while zooming off at a speed that appeared to exceed the 25 mile-per-hour posted limit.

"I don't see why bikes are special and not subject to the speed limit," he said.

They are subject to speed limits.

"It is my intention to make sure everyone understands those laws," said Mr. Patchan, a frequent urban cyclist. "I don't break the laws."

Cyclists are not allowed to ride down the middle of a two-way street, which is what Gayle V. Dietrich said she saw while driving down East Carson Street on the South Side to a doctor's appointment.

"Two different times" cyclists were riding between the yellow lines, said the Moon resident and retired hair salon owner. "I don't want to get near them.

"They stopped for red lights, I will say this."

Mr. Bricker said there is a "subset of cyclists" who ignore the laws.

But when you see a bike on the road, he added, it usually means one fewer automobile.

"Really," he said, "what [more biking] is going to do is make the streets safer for everyone."

Correction/Clarification: (Published Aug. 21, 2008) State law allows bicyclists to ride on sidewalks in business districts only where permission is properly posted. This story as originally published Aug. 18, 2008 stated the law incorrectly.

Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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