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Bicyclists should feel safe on our roads

Cycling advocates have named this national Bike to Work Day to promote the benefits of bicycle commuting: exercise, saving money on gas, sparing our air from fumes and our roads from heavy, space-consuming vehicles.

But before you strap on a backpack and throw your leg over a saddle, you might want to consider another upcoming cycling event, the worldwide Ride of Silence, scheduled for Wednesday evening.

The local ride will leave at 6:30 p.m. from the Suncoast Parkway on State Road 50 and end in downtown Brooksville. Its purpose is to memorialize riders who have been killed or injured.

"The timing is a little odd," said Steve Diez, the county's bicycle/pedestrian coordinator.

Or, maybe not. Maybe, around here, it's smart for cyclists to keep the possibility of death in mind.

A few years ago, the Tampa Bay area was named the second-most dangerous place in the nation to walk or ride a bike. Though riding in Hernando is less hazardous than in Hillsborough or Pinellas counties, four cyclists died on our roads and 99 were injured between 2002 and 2006. Sixteen riders died in Pasco.

Diez and other experts insist bike riding is safe for cyclists who wear helmets and follow traffic laws (and, yeah, a lot of them need to work on that).

But our highways could be safer — and could encourage cycling by appearing safer — if our local Department of Transportation designated more miles of bike lanes, Diez said.

Not building lanes, mind you; most state highways have shoulders suitable for bike traffic. Just posting signs and marking pavement, a relatively tiny expense.

"We're talking about paint," Diez said.

With only a few miles of designated bike lanes on state roads — and none in either Hernando or Pasco — the DOT district based in Tampa lags far behind others in the state.

A district engineer once told me it marks lanes only when they lead to other bike lanes or public transportation, and that, really, signs and road markings don't make riding any safer.

Nonsense. If transportation connections are the key, why are there no marked lanes on SR 50 leading to and from the Suncoast trail and past several stops for THE Bus?

Having ridden on marked lanes in Panama City and Gainesville, I know firsthand that motorists are more respectful when reminded of riders' legal right to the highway.

Riders do have the rights of other vehicles. And they should have these rights because the advantages of cycling, especially for transportation, far outweigh the inconvenience to drivers.

The expense of building more roads for more cars should make it clear we need to use other forms of transportation. Cycling won't be the whole solution, but it can be part of it. Just as it can help cut carbon emissions and promote public health.

I commuted by bike earlier this week so I could report other, hard-to-quantify benefits, such as the joy of coasting through the shaded tunnel of oaks on Fort Dade Avenue.

The drawbacks? Feeling as though I could be picked off by every passing car and truck on SR 50. And feeling that my wife is justified to call — as she does every morning when I ride to work — to make sure I arrived in one piece.

Bicyclists should feel safe on our roads 05/15/08 [Last modified: Saturday, May 17, 2008 11:36pm]
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