Cyclists, drivers wary of each other as bikes and crashes multiply

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Photo - A cyclist prepares to cross a busy intersection on Capitol Hill. (Graeme Jennings/Examiner photo)
A cyclist prepares to cross a busy intersection on Capitol Hill. (Graeme Jennings/Examiner photo)
Local,Transportation,Liz Essley

The increasing popularity of biking is giving drivers and cyclists a crash course in the rules -- fueling road rage and leaving both sides scared, annoyed and angry.

Cycling has soared in the Washington region --with bike commuting up more than 86 percent from 2000 to 2009, according to Census Data, and 9,300 D.C. residents biking to work in 2010, according to the District Department of Transportation. That growth has accelerated thanks to the Capital Bikeshare program, which riders used to take more than 200,000 trips in July.

And with more adults competing in triathlons, long charity bike rides and other races, suburban roads such as Beach Drive and MacArthur Boulevard in Montgomery County and Beulah Road in Fairfax County are clogged with packs of cyclists on both the weekends and weekdays.

Rules of the road
• Bicyclists have all the rights and duties of drivers in D.C., Maryland and Virginia.
• Bikes must ride with the flow of traffic, closer to the right side of the roadway when practical.
• Cars may pass bikes but are expected to leave at least three feet of clearance.
• Cyclists in D.C. and Virginia are not required to use bike lanes, but Maryland riders must use bike lanes if available, unless they're passing, preparing for a turn or avoiding hazards.
• Biking on sidewalks is allowed in all three areas, except where prohibited by local ordinances. Bikes aren't allowed on the sidewalks in D.C.'s Central Business District.

More bikes means more opportunity for conflict with cars -- there were 435 bike crashes in D.C. in 2010, compared with 314 in 2000 and 229 in 2003, according to DDOT's latest data.

Columbia Heights resident Jack Santucci was biking on a Logan Circle street last year when a woman in a parked car opened her door, giving him no time to do anything but smash right into it.

Though D.C. rules require drivers to look before opening doors, the woman blamed Santucci. He should not be biking on the street, she told him, incorrectly.

"There's a lack of awareness of the rules," Santucci said. "That's just the adjustment for the change in the city. People need to get used to the presence of bikes on the road, and people on bikes need to get used to the idea that there are cars in the road, too."

In Montgomery County, police reported 129 bicycle crashes in 2011. In 44 percent of the cases, police decided vehicle drivers were at fault, and in 44 percent police decided cyclists were at fault; 9 percent were both, and 3 percent were undetermined.

But neighborhoods still feud about who's to blame -- cyclists or cars.

Both drivers and experienced cyclists blame bikers for blowing past stop signs and stoplights, not wearing helmets and weaving through traffic.

Andrew Heitman, who drives and bikes, says he has more problems with cyclists than with cars.

"It's especially frustrating to me as a cyclist that these folks take their life in their own hands and expect everyone to see them," the Adams Morgan resident said.

Capital Bikeshare users cause the most problems, both groups say.

"I'm walking down the sidewalk in Eastern Market, and I have immature cyclists on big red bikes pummeling down the sidewalks," said Jennifer Rosen, a Capitol Hill resident who thinks the city needs to step up cyclist education.

But bike users say drivers don't respect cyclists' road rights -- pulling out in front of them and driving dangerously without realizing their heavy vehicles could crush and kill a cyclist in an instant. The drivers are the ones who need to be educated, they say.

"When I ride a bike, I'm putting myself at risk. When you drive, you're putting us both at risk," said Shane Farthing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

Farthing says WABA's classes for bicycle safety have waiting lists, and they're trying to drum up some educational materials for motorists, too.

"There aren't very many resources for drivers to find out how to drive around [bike] infrastructure [such as bike lanes]," Farthing said -- not even the D.C. driver's manual. "There does need to be a significant increase in education of motorists."

lessley@washingtonexaminer.com

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Liz Essley

Staff Writer - Transportation
The Washington Examiner