On her bike, Mel Lucas often feels like she gets no respect.
Drivers have sprayed Mace in her face, tried to slap her on the back, and come so close she's felt the cars brush her leg.
It has made her wary.
But an accident Sunday in which a driver plowed into a group of bicyclists has made her and other cyclists in the area take another look at the sport. Some said they wouldn't ride on area roadways again, at least not for a long time.
"It puts the fear of God into you," said Lucas, 40, of Largo, who was supposed to ride with the group injured Sunday but changed her mind at the last minute. "I know I've changed my whole attitude and a lot of the cyclists I've talked to are going to approach cycling a lot more differently."
Cyclists and motorists are supposed to have equal access to the road, but clearly a bicycle is never going to command the presence of a car or truck. And as the Tampa Bay area grows, encounters between cyclists and motorists are becoming more commonplace.
In the past five years, Tampa has ranked second, and St. Petersburg third, for the highest number of cyclist fatalities and injuries per capita. Fort Lauderdale ranks No. 1.
Among states, Florida had the most bicycle deaths in the nation in 2001 with 126, 20 more than second-ranked California, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Florida's bicyclist death rate also topped the nation at 0.77 deaths per 100,000 people, considerably higher than second-ranked South Carolina's rate of 0.59 deaths per 100,000.
Part of that is because the warm weather draws cyclists out more months of the year. But Florida's roadways are also a factor, said Dwight Kingsbury, assistant state coordinator of pedestrian and bike safety.
"The worst friction seems to occur on the edge of cities," Kingsbury said. "Areas that were formerly rural and have now become suburban thoroughfares and cyclists are using them for their weekend rides. What we're seeing is that many motorists seem to think that cyclists are required to leave the roadway. There is no such law, but the perception is there in some cities."
Bike riders have found safety in numbers and often ride in packs on little-traveled roads. They often ride tightly packed, which minimizes wind resistance and raises speeds as high as 30 mph. But the clustering reduces their ability to dodge hazards such as potholes, sand and automobiles.
Cyclists in packs are urged to shout warnings such as "Car back," which means a vehicle is approaching from the rear.
Sunday was not the first time a driver has hit a group of cyclists. In December 1996, a pickup truck hit six Gainesville cyclists on their way to St. Augustine, killing two of them.
Many cyclists said the recent accident is a reminder of what they go through day after day.
"I feel like the motoring public in general, and this may be a distortion on my part, is out to get us, they're out to gun us down," said Anthony Clifton, president of the St. Petersburg Bicycle Club and a local attorney. "There are over 1,000 cyclists in Pinellas County who actively train and use roads with motorists and most of the time we ride without incident. But in general the attitude of motorists in this county is harsh."
Sandra Seinetz, 46, who has been cycling since 1991 and is a member of both the St. Petersburg Bicycle Club and the St. Pete Mad Dogs, said she will not take to the road on her bike any time soon.
"It will be very long time before I ride on the street again because the total disregard that some people have for their fellow man's welfare is frightening to me," she said.
But some in the neighborhoods along these routes complain that cyclists don't always follow the rules of the road.
"That's the biggest complaint I get, that they just blow right through stop signs," said St. Petersburg City Council member James Bennett, who lives in Pinellas Point. "I understand that it's easier to just keep moving, but you can't have it both ways.
Florida law sanctions cyclists riding two abreast, so long as that doesn't "impede" traffic.
Tina Russo, president of the 500-member Florida Biking Association, said forcing motorists to slow down briefly isn't impeding traffic, but causing vehicles to stack up is.
"It's no different than a tractor being on the road, or a bus," Russo said. "We are a vehicle."
Lucas admitted some cyclists run through stop signs or ride more than two abreast in a single lane, which is also illegal.
"I definitely think there's a problem with that and it starts with some of the more influential cyclists, because unfortunately in cycling it's a little like when you were in high school," Lucas said. "The lower people follow the ones who are the most popular and while that sounds juvenile, it can apply in all aspects of life."
Joseph Fuentes, a retired chemist who lives on Boy Scout Road, a popular cycling route in northwest Hillsborough County, said about a fourth of the cyclists he sees "have an arrogant attitude of taking the whole road."
But Fuentes also said he would never run over one. "I'm never in that much of a hurry that I can't slow down."
He thinks northwest Hillsborough, despite the lakes and horse farms, isn't as safe as cyclists think. It attracts commuters, hurrying toward Tampa.
"When (cyclists) come out here, they think they're in the country, and they're not," Fuentes said. "I'd like to cycle myself, but I'm not going to get out on the road with some of the nuts we've got out here."
Bonnie Inman, who lives on 30th Avenue N where Sunday's accident occurred, said she often sees the cyclists coming down the road for their Sunday ride and she occasionally gets caught behind them. "You do have to use some caution because they take up the whole lane and there's 40 or 50 of them," she said.
"Usually if I get behind them, I don't try to pass them. I'm too afraid. It's annoying at times because it does hold you up, but I guess everybody has rights and if people respect each other's rights, whether it be motorists or bikers, it would be better."
Russo and Sherri Stedje, a Lutz resident who is ranked second among women in the state in competitive cycling, agreed that the most common accident caused by motorists is to pass cyclists, then make a right turn into their path.
"They have no idea you can do 20 miles per hour," said Stedje. "And when they pass you, you're in their slipstream and you're going to pick up some speed. They never look back in that bike lane."
But most fatalities and injuries are cyclists' fault, said Russo, who is certified to teach bicycle safety classes.
In St. Petersburg, relief may be on the way for cyclists. The St. Petersburg City Council will begin considering a bicycle master plan next month.
It includes plans to take the Pinellas Trail through downtown St. Petersburg all the way to Fort DeSoto. It also increases bike lanes from the 6 percent of roadways that now have them to 44 percent of roadways by 2008, said Mike Dove, deputy mayor of neighborhoods.
_ Staff writer Matthew Waite and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
Q & A: How to share the road
In Florida, bicycles are considered vehicles. They are required to follow the same traffic laws, including traffic signs and signals. Florida law states that every driver of a vehicle must use care to avoid colliding with a human-powered vehicle, such as a bicycle. Here are some Florida bike laws:
WHERE CAN BIKES RIDE ON THE ROAD?
Cyclists riding on roads must ride in the same direction as the traffic. Riding on the sidewalk may be prohibited by local ordinances because it increases the risk of collision with pedestrians and with cars entering the road from driveways and intersecting roads.
CAN CYCLISTS USE THE WHOLE LANE?
Cyclists must ride single file, except when two people riding side-by-side in one lane will not impede traffic flow.
If the road is too narrow for all traffic to use the lane, a cyclist may use the entire lane.
HOW ARE BIKE LANES USED?
Bike lanes have markings and signs that indicate that they are for bicycles. Motorists can turn only use the bike lane to turn right after they yield to cyclists in the lane.
HOW CAN A CYCLIST TURN SAFELY IN TRAFFIC?
Cyclists must make left turns from the left turn lane, and are entitled to full use of a lane from which a driver may legally make a left turn.
A cyclist going straight must ride on the right-hand side of the through lane, and not in the right-turn lane.
To make a right turn, a cyclist must use the right turn lane, if available. If not available, use the through lane.
Sources: Florida Uniform Traffic Control Law, Illinois Department of Transportation
Will Davenport of St. Pete Beach rides his bike over the Pinellas County Bayway on his way home Monday. "I love cycling," Davenport said. But he said traffic is worse in this area than it is in Grand Junction, Colo., where he once lived.