Warning: Some Sonoma County bicyclists are armed with cameras
Jerry Meshulam never saw it coming.
The Sebastopol man was riding ? his bicycle on Hall Road west of Santa Rosa when he felt the bracing shock of ice cold liquid being dumped over his head. From the open window of a pickup that sped past him flew an emptied Big Gulp, the plastic cup landing in the road where Meshulam stopped to recover.
“It was pretty outrageous,” said Meshulam, a retired Sonoma County environmental health specialist.
Meshulam, 65, said he also has been beaned by a partially filled Gatorade bottle and sprayed with an unknown liquid during a group ride. Fed up with such assaults, he invested in a small camera a year ago that attaches to his bike and records the action while he’s riding.
Meshulam is among a growing number of cyclists in Sonoma County and across the country who are using technology to document aggressive or dangerous behavior on the part of motorists. The videos are shot on cameras mounted on bikes or helmets, then are posted online, shared with other riders or turned over to law enforcement authorities.
“I want every driver to think every bicyclist has a camera on their bike,” said David Levinger, a veteran Santa Rosa cyclist and independent consultant in the field of transportation and planning. “I think there’s a feeling of anonymity people sometimes have in their vehicles that makes them behave less well.”
Reported cases of motorists deliberately targeting cyclists are rare. But crashes involving distracted driving or other causes are not.
In one recent Sonoma County case, a 77-year-old San Francisco man suffered major injuries Aug. 3 while riding on River Road after he was struck by a driver who apparently drifted onto the shoulder.
The driver didn’t stop and is still being sought. The cyclist, who was not identified, had been riding ahead of friends who didn’t see the collision.
Video of the crash might have proven a crucial piece of evidence, proponents say. Such technology has been around for some time, but its use is expanding as cameras become more affordable and recording quality improves.
Meshulam and Levinger use the Cycliq Fly6 Taillight Camera, which retails for about $170. The device is mounted beneath their bike seats and records things behind them, such as approaching vehicles. Other riders attach GoPros or other cameras to their handlebars or helmets.
Levinger bought his camera on impulse after seeing it in a store. Meshulam purchased his in May 2015 after he was hit with the Gatorade bottle. The device, no larger than a deck of cards, records high-definition video and audio in a continuous loop, erasing unwanted footage. The device also flashes a bright 30-lumen light that makes Meshulam more visible to drivers.
Some have suggested that such cameras are overkill, including one rider on a recent ride in Napa County who said, “I hope it never gets to the point that I need one of those.” Others worry the cameras give the false impression that cycling is an inherently dangerous sport.
Meshulam said using his is a personal decision - one that makes him feel safer on the road.
“Anytime you’ve got cyclists where there are vehicles driving by, there’s obviously some danger in it,” he said. “It seems like people are in a hurry and impatient.”
So far, Meshulam has submitted two videos to the CHP for review. One depicted a motorist yelling profanities and buzzing riders on a group ride; the other captured the driver of a white pickup as he veered into oncoming traffic to pass cyclists on Highway 1 near Valley Ford.
Meshulam confronted a supervisor at a local lumber supply business with another video, this one showing a company driver making what Meshulam considered to be a dangerous pass as he rode on Green Valley Road outside of Graton. The supervisor told him he would speak with the driver.
“I want to use (video) to educate people so they understand they can’t do stupid things with impunity,” Meshulam said.
Interactions between cyclists and motorists often occur in nanoseconds, making it a challenge under normal circumstances to decipher what has occurred. But by slowing down the videos on playback, cyclists can see much more clearly what happened. The images are sometimes so crisp that vehicles’ license plates are visible.
But as with any situation distilled into seconds or minutes of video, it’s not always possible to determine whether an infraction has occurred.
A case in point is video Levinger forwarded to the CHP from an April 16 ride on Highway 1, south of the Point Arena Lighthouse. The 53-year-old Santa Rosa man and several other cyclists were riding south on the highway when in front of them they saw a black pickup cross over into their lane to pass another vehicle.
There is no bike lane or shoulder on that stretch of the highway, leaving the riders with no choice but to hug the white fog line and keep riding or ditch their bikes in the field alongside the road. Levinger said it happened so fast that he had no time to get off the road.
The pickup crossed back over the yellow line before completing the pass, coming within inches of the other vehicle. Levinger surmised the pickup’s driver suddenly realized the cyclists were there and had to take evasive action to avoid hitting them.
“I imagined he was freaked out,” Levinger said.
A video of the incident can be viewed at pd2go.net/tglebH.
To Levinger, the footage offers clear evidence the driver made a dangerous and illegal pass into oncoming traffic.
But CHP Officer Jon Sloat, who reviewed the video, said the incident did not warrant a citation. Instead, he said, the CHP sent a warning letter to the pickup’s registered owner, based on the distance between the two vehicles as they passed.
“He was awfully close to that other car. We recognize that,” Sloat said.
Bike cameras also have uses beyond law enforcement matters. Using the footage, cyclists can advocate for more bike lanes or pothole repairs, or simply to show off a fun or challenging ride, said Steve Taylor, a spokesman for the American League of Bicyclists.
“There are lot of ways cyclists can use video to help make them safer, and make it safer for cyclists in the future,” he said.
Levinger, a certified bicycle instructor with motorcycle and commercial driver’s licenses, said he strives for harmony on the road.
“I wave to a lot of drivers. Every person on the roadway is a potential friend,” he said.
But just in case, he keeps the camera running.
You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @deadlinederek.