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COURSEY: Raising awareness – not fear – on the roads


As a friend and I rolled up to the stoplight at North Street and College Avenue on Thursday morning, the woman in the car next to us rolled down her passenger-side window.

"Aren't you guys nervous?" she asked.

The question didn't come as a surprise. It was in the air this week, and on the lips of friends and family and yes, even strangers. It was delivered sometimes with concern, sometimes with derision, sometimes with curiosity, sometimes with snark.

Who in their right mind is out riding a bicycle on Sonoma County roads these days?

Five bicyclists have been killed this year in collisions with motor vehicles — a statistical spike that has been amply documented on the pages of The Press Democrat. It seems almost everyone is aware of it; it seems almost everyone is thinking about it and, in the past few days, it seems almost everyone is talking about it.

This is a good thing, if you believe that anything good can result from so much tragedy. We all should be more aware about our behavior on the roads, whether we are traveling on four wheels, two wheels or no wheels at all.

But some people, including people close to me, have suggested that all of these recent deaths should have me and other cyclists reconsidering the wisdom of riding bikes on area roads.

"It's getting more dangerous out there," a friend said to me on Thursday evening.

I disagreed.

There are more cyclists on the road every day, making it statistically likely that more cyclists will be involved in accidents — but not making it more likely that any individual cyclist will get hurt. Meanwhile, this newspaper has recognized the increasing popularity and importance of bicycling in this community, and provides extensive coverage of any accident resulting in serious injury or death. That makes cycling appear more dangerous to those who aren't out on bikes.

Those of us who are out there, though, don't necessarily see it that way. I observe more and more drivers exercising care and patience around cyclists, and more and more cyclists demonstrating respect and understanding of the rules of the road.

There are, of course, exceptions. Earlier this week, I was crowded to the gutter by the driver of a passing sedan who had an entire vacant road available to get around me. Later I watched a helmet-less woman on a mountain bike blow blithely through a stop sign as a waiting motorist leaned on his horn.

There are a few of those kinds of apples in every barrel. But the "war" between cyclists and drivers is waged by a tiny minority of either group. The vast majority is able to get along out there.

Still, it doesn't hurt to remind everyone of the need to be aware, the need to be careful, the need to possess some patience and some empathy on the roads. Friday evening, the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition sponsors a "silent ride" down Mendocino Avenue to drive home those points and to mourn the loss of fellow riders.

I will be with them in spirit, but didn't join that procession. It's not that I don't agree with the message; it's that I have very mixed feelings about the way it is delivered.

A mass bike ride is a great way to increase the visibility of cyclists and to make the point that bikes belong on the road. But I think it only gets that point across to those who already embrace it, while it antagonizes those who don't. Those sympathetic to cyclists see a display of strength and pride; those who dislike bikes see an in-your-face show of defiance and anger.

So I'll be out on my bike, as I am almost every day, either by myself or with a few friends. I'll be thinking about those who have died recently, and I'll be doing my best to show motorists that cyclists understand that "share the road" works both ways.

I won't be nervous, but I will be aware.

<i>Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.</i>