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Monday, September 19, 2011 - 1:45pm

Cyclist Safety: A Growing Challenge

Drivers in the greater-Augusta area are slamming into cyclists at an alarming rate. More than 90 vehicles have collided with people on bikes since January 2010. Cycling advocates and city officials agree there is a problem. But they say the solution will take time and money.

Walton Way Extension is an artery that connects Richmond County with Columbia County. It speeds through shopping centers, like the one with Augusta’s Best Buy store. And at precisely that shopping center intersection, a bike lane appears. The problem is that only half the lane is asphalt. The other half is gutter. Christian Lentz, of the bike advocacy group Wheel Movement, stands on the curb.

“In theory you’ve got six feet of bicycle lane there, but in reality because you’ve got two different surfaces when you’re a cyclist you’re going to choose one or the other and you’re probably going to choose the smooth asphalt and you can see how closely the cars are driving past that bicycle lane.”

The lane disappears from the road about a mile from the Best Buy. Right now, this is what regional planners offer cyclists to keep them safe. Lentz says most riders would be afraid of this situation.

“I think you’d find only the most intrepid cyclist, that niche group, but the typical person wouldn’t want to ride on that and of course they wouldn’t.”

Cyclists do ride it, and city officials and advocates agree that more cyclists are on the roads both as commuters and as recreationalists. But many vehicle drivers don’t seem to be ready for them. From 2008 through 2010 the tri-county area had 104 bike-vehicle crashes according to the Georgia Department of Transportation. In less than two years since then, there have been over 90 crashes. Last month a driver rear-ended and killed a doctor cycling to work. It was the third death in less than a year. 

Marya Multry tracks that data as part of the region’s bicycle and pedestrian plan. She is the transportation engineer for Augusta-Richmond County. The plan would eventually put bike lanes on many major roads.

“It’s very extreme. You either have people who say yes, we need to do this, or no. And it may just be that we’re in the south. The older generation was not real… you know, they don’t want those bicycles on the road. “

Multry says that attitude seems to be changing, especially as cyclists become more vocal about their needs. But lots of cyclists report drivers throwing bottles at them and veering toward them. Georgia recently passed a law that requires drivers put three feet between them and a cyclist when passing.

Cyclists say that helps. So does money, and no government entity has much of it. Multry deals with that by looking for crash hot spots.

“At this point what we’re trying to do is pinpoint the area and then if we already have something in the pipeline for the actual roadway that provides a very good opportunity to go in and actually do some actual bike and pedestrian facility improvements at the same time.”

County transportation officials hope that next year voters will approve a penny sales tax that would pay for road projects like bike lanes.

In the meantime members of Wheel Movement are working with riders to improve their safety and etiquette habits. Group rides, like the ones at Outspokin Bikes, are also beefing up the safety talks.

“Remember using hand signals and staying to the right.”

Jeff Tilden is on this group ride. He’s been cycling for eight years.

“I think we need to be the greatest amount of attention and make ourselves visible, obnoxious blinking lights like I have. I want to be visible and a small target.”

And with that, the group rolls out, staying to the right, sharing the lanes and keeping their eyes open.

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