Couple’s key to bike safety is preparation


After a strong ride with a weekly group, Janet and David Merriman pedaled home, with a detour to check on a friend’s house they were watching. As dusk gathered, they turned left on 16th, east of Sullivan in the Valley, taking it easy after the 25-mile run out of Wheel Sport East.

They saw deer grazing off to the right as a car approached. Suddenly a fawn darted from the left into the path of the car.

It happened so fast that David thought the fawn was thrown into Janet, knocking her to the pavement. (He later found out a second fawn bolted across the road and broadsided Janet.) She suffered facial abrasions and too many bruises to count. Repairs to the bike were in excess of $500.

And David Merriman’s resolve was strengthened.

Throughout his 50 years of riding, Merriman has preached safety. He does so on Wednesday night group rides and in committee meetings for the Valleyfest Cycle Celebration (July 27). During his years as a Boy Scout leader, he earned the title of safety officer.

David’s wife, Janet, began riding seriously just last year.

“For years I didn’t embrace his passion,” said the former figure skater who battles back issues. “I could never justify (the expense) for something I didn’t know I would like.”

Now she might be called the junior safety officer.

“How do you get safe on a bike?” she repeated. “You need to put in the miles but you need a coach.

“He’s a really good teacher; I have no problem letting him be the teacher,” she said, adding with a smile, “in this instance.”

Reasons for safety

Many riders opt to take advantage of the extensive trails in the area to avoid dangers on the road, especially families with beginner riders. But freak accidents can happen on a multiuse path despite the absence of motorized transportation and that’s why Safety Officer Merriman is vigilant.

There was absolutely nothing Janet, who was going about 10 mph, could have done to avoid her accident. But the outcome could have been much worse if her spouse wasn’t a stickler for riding the safe – and right – way.

It starts at the very top … of your head.

“Why is there a reason not to wear a helmet?” David asked.

He scoffed at the “looking-dorky” and “messy-hair” excuses and pointed out that a $100 helmet and a $20 helmet pass the same safety requirements.

“It’s the laws of physics,” he explained. “Even if you’re sitting on top of a stationary bike you’re still high enough to get hurt if you fall. Add forward momentum and it multiplies. There are so many risks you can manage and (wearing a helmet) is an easy one.”

Janet recently got out of her car to check on a young girl who tipped over after her bike hit a curb on the South Hill. After determining there were no injuries, Janet encouraged the girl to request a helmet when she got home, explaining how that saved her just a couple of days before. She had the scabs to prove it.

But that is just the start. Once a youngster is comfortable with a bike and helmet, the newfound freedom means it’s time to explore beyond the neighborhood boundaries.

In Spokane and Kootenai counties that often means Centennial Trail.

“To me the trail is a terrific place to ride, especially on weekdays when there are not a lot of people,” Spokane County Sheriff’s Deputy Matt Gould said. “It’s nice and wide, fairly flat. You’re never going to end up with a big hill to climb, especially for a new rider. And there are some services like bathrooms and drinking fountains.”

Gould was part of the original Mountain Bike Patrol, which has been discontinued. He cruised the trail for three summers beginning in 2003.

“What else could you ask for?” he added. “The Spokane River is beautiful.”

The trail is a treasure used by families and individuals, walkers and runners, skate boarders and inline skaters, young and old.

Some of those people are sightseeing, others are talking, some are listening to music and still others are trying to tire out rambunctious, curious children. Don’t forget those walking their dog.

“There are rules for use of the Centennial Trail,” David Merriman said, ruefully adding, “No one pays attention to them. They’re posted where they aren’t noticed.”

(See bikers, inline skaters and skateboarders without helmets and dog poop on the trail for proof of ignoring the rules. The former scout leader has always believed that rectifying that would make a good Eagle Scout project.)

Then there is the unexpected – a wild animal or a loose dog.

With all of that going on, bikers – who use more of the trail on a typical outing and travel at the highest speeds among trail users – should be aware of their surroundings and take the lead for a safe, pleasant experience.

“The biggest thing I saw – I think the biggest misperception – is how fast bikes are,” Gould said. “We were contacted all the time about people speeding. (The posted speed is 15 mph.) On rare occasions someone was way over. Most of the time we never saw speeding.”

Obviously bikes can be winging by at a high speed so what is trail protocol?

“You pay your money for a new bike, maybe a helmet, and you’re out the door,” Janet said. “Nobody told me anything. If it wasn’t for my husband … What if I never had advice on rules and road safety?”

Her husband believes experienced bikers should be role models for beginners. Slowing down allows the experienced biker to encourage the beginner to witness techniques done the right way. Merriman takes issue with experienced riders who don’t wear a helmet, who travel way too fast in congested areas and don’t bother to communicate.

Riders should announce their approach, which should be at a safe speed.

“Communication is important in cycling in general to protect yourself and others,” Merriman said.

“On your left” is a common phrase heard on the trail as faster people approach slower people. A bell on your bike works the same way and the ring always seems to make people smile.

Of course it does no good if a person is using headphones (or is talking on the phone), so one ear should always be free of music. And that is especially true if the walker has young children or dogs on a leash, so they can easily move aside when bikers announce their approach.

Mirrors (attached to the bike or helmet) are good to notice traffic coming from behind. It’s a proven fact that the bike of a rider who turns his head to glance back veers that way, the degree dependent on experience.

You can never be perfectly safe but you can decrease the odds of having an accident, or at least the freak part of a potential accident.

“The No. 1 thing would be stay to the right, stay out of the middle of the trail. Be aware of what’s around you,” said Gould, a frequent rider. “I don’t think there are big issues. Most people, by-and-large, are safe runners and safe riders.

“The biggest issue was (and is) people leaving valuables in cars at the trail.”

There are more things to know when venturing out – clothing, water, nutrition – things that come with experience.

“I know what Dave thought: ‘My wife died because I forced her into biking,’ ” Janet said. “The first thing I said was, ‘How’s my bike?’ I guess that’s when you know you should be biking.”

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