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Benefield: Why such misplaced hatred for cyclists?

It happens every time. Every time a news story appears in which a cyclist is harmed in a collision with a vehicle, people come out of the woodwork condemning the cyclist.

Take Tuesday’s Press Democrat, for example. Aaron Michael Paff, 22, was sentenced to three years in state prison after pleading guilty to two felony hit-and-run charges stemming from an incident on Point Reyes-Petaluma Road last fall.

Driving a large truck, Paff struck four cyclists who were participating in The Jensie Gran Fondo on Oct. 7. Then Paff drove away. Witnesses who saw him crash into four human beings told CHP investigators at the time that it appeared Paff had done it on purpose.

That was never proven. Only Paff knows for sure. Maybe he’ll tell his cellmate.

But what is proven is that Paff struck four people and left them for dead. One victim had to be airlifted to the hospital because of the severity of his injuries.

When Paff struck those four men, he already had another hit-and-run charge pending against him. In that case, he was driving with an open container of alcohol.

And yet, many comments online contend that cyclists, who were participating in the charity event to benefit the Marin County Cycling Coalition, have no business riding on Point Reyes-Petaluma Road, that people who ride bikes are “self entitled road hogging arrogant bicyclists,” and that anyone who chooses to ride on narrow roads is “by definition a risk-taking fool.”

One commenter suggested those who are sick of people riding bikes could “really p--- off the spandex warriors by making a monetary donation to paffs inmate account in their name.” (All of the spelling and grammatical errors were left intact for the sake of accuracy).

Now, I’m probably making a mistake by giving these commenters more airtime. But the point is this: They are out there behind the wheels of vehicles and interacting with cyclists every day. And there are those who never take the time to put fingers to keyboard to spew their venom, but they still drive area roads with deep-seated feelings of antipathy for people on bikes.

This is not about the vile comments, or even about Paff, really. It’s about humanity.

When people think of those who ride bikes as just “cyclists” and classify them as an entity that annoys, frustrates, infuriates or worse, those people are stripping cyclists of their humanity. People who ride bikes are also mothers, brothers, daughters and friends. They are the doctor who mends your wounds or the person who bags your groceries. They are us.

And to wish harm on someone because you feel they have slowed you down on your journey is not a reasonable leap to make.

And yet, ask anyone who rides a bike with any regularity and they will invariably tell you they’ve been buzzed, they’ve been yelled at, they’ve been honked at, they’ve had things thrown at them or they’ve been hit.

And if you are lining up to say any of the following: Cyclists should pay taxes like motorists do, cyclists should be licensed as are motorists, cyclists should pay their fair share if they are going to get amenities like bike lanes - stop. Just stop.

I’m willing to bet that ?99 percent of the cyclists we all encounter are drivers, too. As such they presumably hold a driver’s license for which they were tested on the vehicle code. Bikes fall under the vehicle code. Drivers also maintain insurance, they also pay taxes on their vehicles and the gas that fills them - a portion of those dollars goes toward road maintenance. And bikes put exponentially less wear and tear on roads than cars.

And rights? Cyclists have every right to ride on Sonoma County’s fantastic roads. It’s the law.

“The law reads that a bicycle has just as much entitlement to usage of the roadway that a vehicle does,” said CHP Officer Andrew Barclay.

And the law also reads that drivers must maintain a 3-foot buffer when passing someone on a bike, or slow down and pass only when it would not endanger a cyclist’s safety.

Now I’m hearing this argument gurgling up from the deep: Just because it’s lawful for cyclists to ride Sonoma County’s roads doesn’t mean it’s safe. If you make that argument, you are right. But it’s not cyclists who are making it unsafe; it’s careless, frustrated, angry drivers. And those same drivers should not dictate who gets to use the roads.

“(Cyclists) have responsibility associated with being on the road,” said Jim Elias, executive director of the Marin County Bicycle Coalition. “But to tell someone that there may be risk and they are therefore responsible for fixing that by going away makes no sense at all.”

And by responsibility, Elias means following the rules of the road: moving to single-file position when there is a vehicle behind, riding as far to the right as is safe for the cyclist and signaling intentions.

We all have seen people on bikes disregard these rules. Those riders make it harder on all of us. But they don’t represent all cyclists. And irritation at that type of rider should not beget violent behavior.

“We cyclists who like to follow the rules don’t appreciate that either. We are trying to do the right thing,” said Bridgette DeShields, president of the Santa Rosa Cycling Club board of directors. “For our club, we try to promote a safe culture. We do a before-ride talk every time.”

When someone in a car rolls through a four-way stop or drives slower than you’d like, you might get miffed - but you don’t throw stuff out your window at them or pass them within two inches of their drivers’ side door.

Or do you? The anger on the road seems to have more to do with the person driving a car than the person riding the bike.

“In my professional capacity, it does seem that we are dealing with more people who get into road rage,” Barclay said. “There just seem to be more of these incidents now. They are just driving more aggressively.”

When cyclists say share the road, we don’t mean, “Please, drivers of cars, share the road with me when I’m on my bike.” It means we are in this together. Drivers of cars have no more right to use the road than riders of bikes. Period.

And to those who express worry about our safety by wishing that we would not use windy narrow roads, I say this: Thank you for thinking of me. Thank you for caring about my well-being. But please, use that care to simply drive more carefully and be aware of me. That’s the best way to show your concern.

And yes, your car is ?4,000 pounds and my bike is 20 pounds. But because something is bigger, stronger and faster does not give a driver of a vehicle ownership or priority on a public road. Might does not make right. It makes a bully.

Not every driver is a jerk. Not every cyclist is an angel. But let’s not lose sight of our individual humanity, however we choose to get around this beautiful county we call home.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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