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Make room for two-wheeled travelers - Sunday, August 3, 2008

Make room for two-wheeled travelers - Sunday, August 3, 2008

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Lately it seems like if it isn't a bicycle, it's a mo-ped or scooter or some other two-wheeled contraption buzzing along on the streets of Missoula.

Isn't it great?

High gas prices appear to be one of the main forces pushing more people to pedal, but many commuters are also opting for bicycles in order to get more exercise, or because they want to be easier on the environment. Whatever the reasons, we all reap the benefits of less traffic congestion and cleaner air.

But with more new bikers out there - and a lot of drivers who aren't yet used to sharing the streets with them - it's a good idea for all of us, bikers and drivers alike, to brush up on the rules of the road.

Over the past 10 years, City Bicycle Pedestrian program manager Phil Smith has noticed a big change in Missoula's bicycle scene. For instance, many drivers seemed confused after lines designating the new bike lanes were first painted on, but now these lanes have become a fixture and people are more accustomed to them, he said. And the bicycle ambassadors highlighted in a Missoulian story earlier this week are certainly doing a lot to help to educate bikers and drivers on traffic rules and protocol.

Still, there's always work to be done when it comes to improving driver and biker behavior, Smith added.

And with that in mind, here are some points to mull over - and hopefully put to good use.

For drivers:

Make it a point to pay attention to bicyclists.

People have a tendency to pay more attention to things they perceive as risks, Smith explained, meaning it's natural for us to pay more attention to a speeding semi than a tot on a tricycle. Drivers have to train themselves to notice all the users of a road, from the largest to the smallest.

Treat bikers as legitimate users of the road.

"Bicycles are legally vehicles on the roadway and they're entitled to space on the roadway," Smith said. "And in bike lanes, they're entitled to exclusive use."

This means, for instance, that drivers shouldn't drive in the bike lane before making a right-hand turn - and they should check to make sure the lane is clear before crossing it.

Give bicyclists some space.

Bike riders sometimes need to swerve around obstacles, such as glass bottles or potholes, that would not be considered hazardous to someone in a car, and they need enough room to make those sudden moves.

n When parking, look for bicyclists before opening your door.

If you open your door into the bike lane, a bicyclist may not have enough time - or enough room outside the lane - to avoid a crash.

Use your signals.

Signals are a way of communicating your intentions to others, and good communication helps prevent traffic accidents. According to Smith, it's unpredictable behavior that leads to crashes. For example, you wouldn't expect a car to careen through an intersection without stopping at a stop sign.

Everybody is, or should be, aware of the rules of the road - and we all expect others to follow those rules. So make your behavior more predictable by following the rules of the road.

For bicyclists:

Comply with all traffic laws.

Some bikers seem to think that, because they aren't in a motor vehicle, they don't have to obey traffic laws. But just as the rules of the road make drivers' behavior more predictable, so too do they make bikers' behavior more predictable. And, as Smith said, it's unexpected behavior that causes crashes.

Bikers should be aware that every traffic law that applies to motor vehicles also applies to bikes. It's illegal, for example, to ride a bicycle down the wrong side of the street.

Look for opportunities for motor vehicles to disobey the rules of the road.

In other words, you might be following all rules, but it's entirely possible that the car you're sharing the road with isn't. And since a biker is more likely than a driver to be injured or killed in a bicycle-motor vehicle collision, it makes sense for bikers to just expect some traffic violations - so they can avoid collisions.

Be visible.

In the daytime, this means being where drivers would expect to see you - in a bike lane, if there is one. And at night, use lights and put reflective tape on both the front and rear of your bicycle.

n Ride far enough away from parked cars so that if a door opens suddenly, it won't hit you.

Everyone on a bike should wear a helmet.

If you're on a tandem bike, both of you should be wearing a helmet; if you're towing a cart full of kids, they should be wearing helmets, too.

If you don't have a helmet, and think you can't afford to buy one, check out the next St. Patrick Hospital helmet sale. The trauma prevention department buys helmets in bulk and then holds a sale about once a month. The department has sold about 120 helmets a month, or a total of 2,000 helmets in the past year.

You can pick up a bike helmet for $6 each at the next sale on August 20.

Safety information

For more information about bicycling safety in Missoula, call the Bicycle-Pedestrian program at 552-6352. For more information about the next St. Patrick Hospital helmet sale, call 329-5660.

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