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Bikes share risks as well as the road

I don't pretend to know how Largo police Officer George Walters feels after accidentally hitting and killing a bicyclist in Largo on the night of Jan. 17, as he drove home from work. He is said to be traumatized and shaken up by the accident.

However, I do know well the stomach-clinching moment of fear that Walters must have felt when his headlights revealed a bicyclist directly in front of his car. I experience that feeling with disturbing frequency while driving home from my downtown Clearwater office after dark.

The scenario is almost always the same: The bicyclist _ and these are usually adults, not children _ is wearing dark clothing and riding a dark-colored bicycle that has neither a headlight nor a reflector in the back. He is either cutting across the road or riding against the traffic, where he could easily be hit by oncoming cars. He isn't wearing a helmet.

Invisible until the last second, he is counting on my tired eyes to see him in the dark and is assuming my reflexes will be quick enough to avoid him.

He's taking a terrible chance with his life.

In one recent week, I had three of these close encounters with bicyclists out of the five days I drove home after dark. Down in Largo, Officer Walters also was driving home from work, traveling south in the 1300 block of Seminole Boulevard, when a northbound bicyclist cut across two lanes of traffic and right into the path of his police cruiser. The bicyclist, a 48-year-old Largo resident, died at the scene. His bike had neither a headlight nor a reflector.

My frightening encounters with bicyclists have skyrocketed since the neighborhoods around downtown became heavily populated with Mexicans. A bicycle is often the first mode of transportation for newly arrived Mexican residents before they save enough money for a car or truck. Because a bicycle is all they have, they ride them day and night, in all kinds of conditions, including in the rain and on moonless nights on dark streets.

That is their right. Florida considers a bicycle a legal vehicle, and bicyclists have the same rights as those driving motorized vehicles.

But bicyclists also share with drivers of motorized vehicles the responsibility of following state traffic laws. And according to state law, every bicycle in use between sunset and sunrise must have a headlight that can be seen at least 500 feet away. The bike also must have a lamp and a reflector in the rear, both showing a red light visible from 600 feet away. Those are considered minimum safety standards; the statute governing bicycles, Florida Statute 316.2065, points out that both the rider and the bike can have additional lights and reflectors to make them even more visible.

The law also requires bicyclists to ride as close to the right-hand curb as possible unless they are preparing to make a left turn or avoiding an obstacle. Cutting across multiple lanes or weaving in and out between cars are not allowed.

There is also some common sense required. One would think that a bicyclist would understand the necessity of wearing light-colored clothing while riding at night. But no. The ones I've almost hit invariably are wearing dark pants, dark shirts or jackets, even dark caps.

Pinellas County is an extraordinarily dangerous place to ride a bicycle, even when the bicyclist is doing everything right. When the bicyclist is irresponsible, he and motorists who encounter him are put at risk.

Law enforcement agencies in Pinellas need to be more diligent about ticketing bicyclists who don't follow traffic laws. A campaign to catch nighttime bicyclists who don't have lights on their bikes could save lives.

There also is a great need for bicycle education programs for adults, especially in neighborhoods where people who are not native to this country have settled. Many may be unaware that it is illegal to drive at night without lights, whether you are driving a car or a bicycle.

Churches, schools, local governments and bicycling organizations could perform an important community service by offering programs on how to follow the law and ride a little more safely in Pinellas.