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It's time to speak up for Tampa Bay area bicyclists

As far as I know, the timing of the seventh recent cycling death in the Tampa Bay area, along with the increasing hostility we riders have noticed on the roads of Pasco County, is strictly coincidental.

The Florida Highway Patrol won't decide for weeks whether to charge Jennifer Tuttle, 30, the driver of the GMC Yukon that the FHP says struck Brad Ash from behind as he cycled east on St. Joe Road on Oct. 4; he lingered in the hospital for six days before dying Sunday night.

Judging from the FHP report, Tuttle may have been careless, but there's certainly no indication of malice.

Still, this feels like a big deal.

Most of the six previous deaths have been in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. And there was a horrific hit-and-run on Sunday in Pinellas Park: a driver struck a cyclist and continued on for 20 blocks as she clung to the roof. When she was flung to the ground, the driver sped off.

Something needs to be done: more signs and bike lanes and more education about cyclists' rights, with special attention to the state law requiring 3 feet of clearance when drivers pass cyclists.

But everybody knows that the crowded parts of Tampa Bay are generally lethal places to ride. That's one reason riders started coming up to San Antonio more than 20 years ago. And Ash's death is proof of something that cyclists have been feeling for months — that if it used to be safe to ride in eastern Pasco, it's not anymore.

Said Ridgewood High principal Andy Frelick, who sometimes rode with Ash: "I'm sure you've been on the road when you can almost feel the brush of the mirror as the cars go by.''

Absolutely. And I've seen drivers who think it's a joke to cut off groups of riders, preferably while giving them the finger and laying on the horn. I know cyclists who have had bottles thrown at them. Glenn Weber, former owner of San Antonio Cyclery, said a sheriff's deputy recently pulled over a few feet in front of him and another rider and slammed on his brakes — all for the purpose of lecturing them about the dangers of riding two abreast.

Whether or not you like cyclists, this isn't good. Make cyclists feel safe and welcome and there will be fewer cars and more riders. That means fewer expensive road-widening projects and even more expensive light-rail lines. Let's just say cycling is the least expensive alternative transportation around.

But, you say, the purely recreational riders in San Antonio are adding to the traffic congestion, not relieving it.

Okay, so the economic argument is different. These are well-off folks, by and large. And if you can't make money off people willing to pay $200 for a pair of padded shorts, you're not working hard enough.

If I were a Realtor, for example, trying to sell a house in Lake Jovita, you can bet I'd point out that it is in the middle of a cycling paradise. Pitch Dade City bed-and-breakfasts as a winter getaway for triathletes up north, and I guarantee they'll be booked from January through March.

Brooksville seems to get it. My wife is helping to organize a bike race here this weekend, and every store owner and city official she's talked to has jumped on board. They see cycling as a way to bring people downtown.

So how did it happen? How did riders in eastern Pasco come to feel that, as Weber said, "when it comes to living beings, we're lower on the totem pole than dogs, right down on the level with squirrels''?

Maybe when deputies started cracking down on us early this year — writing tickets for impeding traffic and speeding, and trailing groups of riders to make sure they didn't roll through stop signs. Which was fine. Arrogant, scofflaw riders got what they deserved.

Problem was, there was no corresponding crackdown on abusive drivers. We didn't see any deputies warning them not to violate cyclists' rights.

"The message was, the law's all on their side,'' Weber said.

Officials send the same message when they don't speak out for cyclists who have been killed. And I haven't heard enough of that either.

Ash earned a degree in psychology and spent most of his career working with troubled teenagers, said his father, Bud Ash. He taught special education at Pasco High School for several years and, more recently, math at Pasco Middle School.

He loved riding and went on a dream vacation this spring, riding on the cobblestones of Belgium and watching the classic professional races there.

But he was careful, said Weber. He usually rode with a flashing red light behind his seat and always rode with a helmet. There was no indication that he was hogging the lane when he was hit last week.

I'm still waiting for some official to remind drivers that Ash was protected by law. So is his father.

"It would be a benefit for this community,'' he said, "if there was more education for drivers, so they know riders have a right to use part of the road.''

IF YOU GO

Service for bicyclist

New Walk Church is having a memorial service for Brad Ash at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the East Pasco YMCA on State Road 54 in Zephyrhills. Child care will be offered.

It's time to speak up for Tampa Bay area bicyclists 10/12/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 12, 2010 9:18pm]
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