Spoke Safety

A few simple bike rules of the road can save your life.

Last November, ardent bicyclist Merrill Cassell was crushed under a Bee-Line bus while crossing Route 119 in Greenburgh. The 66-year-old retired UNICEF budget director was known for his efforts to have bicycles integrated into Westchester’s transportation system. Cassell’s death illustrates a point he made frequently: county streets and drivers aren’t very well equipped to deal with bike riders.

Amy Paulin, New York State assemblywoman of the 88th District (which includes Bronxville, Eastchester, Pelham, Pelham Manor, Scarsdale, Tuckahoe, and parts of New Rochelle and White Plains), introduced a bill in late 2009 that would require motorists to remain at least three feet away from cyclists.

“Our membership is encouraging local, county, and state officials to support the three-foot buffer rule,” says Michael Oliva, co-president of the Bike Walk Alliance of Westchester & Putnam. As of March 1, 17 states, including Connecticut, had passed laws requiring motorists to give cyclists a three-foot buffer. Even if the bill passes, cyclists, including experienced ones like Cassell, should pay more attention to safety on the road.

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Approximately 10 people are injured every month in traffic accidents involving bicycles in Westchester, according to the DMV. An unknown number—probably larger—go unreported because motor vehicles weren’t involved.

The injured aren’t just kids, either. In fact, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says the vast majority of people killed in bike accidents are men over the age of 16, with the highest rate of deaths per million in the 45- to 49-year-old age group.

Pat Miller, a 50-year-old Scarsdale computer scientist, came close to becoming a statistic on the Bronx River Trailway near the Hartsdale train station. “The birds were chirping, the sun was shining, and I was feeling great,” he recalls. “Then I hit a block of cement hidden by leaves. My bike stopped, but I did not. I went over the handlebars, pulling the bike over me and somersaulting twice. I hit hard on my head and shoulder and broke my wrist.” The fall also broke his helmet, but, as Miller put it, “Better the helmet than my skull.”

Steve Kahn, who owns the largest bike store in the County, Danny’s Cycles in Scarsdale, points out, “By far, the most important piece of safety equipment is a helmet. It saves your life by such a statistically phenomenal percentage that it makes no sense not to wear one.” The Insurance Institute reports that 91 percent of bicycle fatalities in 2008 occurred when the rider wasn’t wearing a helmet. State law requires helmets for all riders under 14 and Westchester County calls for helmets on all riders regardless of age on the Bronx River Parkway when it’s turned over to them on Bicycle Sundays. Helmets are also mandatory on the County Trailways and all the mountain bike trails in the parks, but there is little or no enforcement. Some towns, like Greenburgh, mandate helmets for all riders and a $50 ticket can be issued to violators.

The law states your bike also must have some minimal safety equipment including brakes and a bell or horn that can be heard 100 feet away (whistles don’t count). If you ride at night, you must have a white light for the front that can be seen from 500 feet, a red or amber taillight visible from 300 feet, and reflective tires or reflectors mounted on the spokes for improved visibility from the side.

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Here are a few lesser-known New York bike safety laws: you must keep at least one hand on the handlebar at all times, and you have to sit on the seat, not the handlebars or fender; you can’t wear more than one earphone attached to an audio device. Cellphones and texting? The same laws apply as to automobile drivers, according to Jennifer Clunie, executive director of the New York Bicycling Coalition.

Cyclists must obey the same traffic signs, signals, and pavement markings as other vehicles—and you can get a ticket if you don’t. Parents, by the way, are legally responsible for their children. Never ride against the traffic. In fact, the law says you’re supposed to ride with the traffic because it makes you more visible and predictable to motorists, not to mention it improves the flow of vehicles.

If there is a bike lane on the road, you are required to use it, although a bike path separate from the main roadway is optional. If there is no bike lane, you’re supposed to ride on the right shoulder or right edge of the road. You can move to the left to make a left turn as long as you don’t impede traffic.

Yes, two cyclists can ride side-by-side but have to go single file when another vehicle overtakes them.

Turns are tricky. After signaling, the cyclist should move to the center of the traffic lane to make a turn—either right or left—to make sure another vehicle doesn’t try to share the lane while turning the same way. That’s a recipe for disaster.

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Police Sgt. Robert Gramaglia, who leads the seven-person bike squad for the Greenburgh PD, adds, “A lot of people don’t have chain guards, so they get their pants caught in their chain. Do that, and you’re going over the handlebars. The seat should also be adjusted so that both feet touch the ground when the rider is standing over the mid-section of the bar. If the seat is too high, you’ll teeter and fall over when it comes time to stop.”

One final cautionary note: many of us ride bikes to reduce our carbon footprint. We drive hybrid cars for the same reason. Unfortunately, the two are a dangerous mix, according to a 2009 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which found that the lack of engine noise in hybrids make bicyclists twice as likely to have an accident with a hybrid as with a gas-powered car.

Dave Donelson solemnly swears he will wear his bike helmet at all times, but he refuses to don spandex shorts under any circumstances.

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