When it comes to biking on the road, Jenni Gaertner rides by the rules. She straps on a helmet, wears reflective clothing, goes with the flow of traffic and is as unassuming as the vehicles that travel with her.
That’s why Gaertner, on a recent Sunday ride from her home in Coeur d’Alene through Liberty Lake and Spokane Valley, broke down in tears after three separate episodes of harassment from passing motorists. One incident, in which a man suggested she wouldn’t win a fight with his truck, prompted her to memorize the license plate and report it to police.
“It became very clear to me that this mindset was so dangerous that I don’t even know how to describe it,” said Gaertner, a 38-year-old bike shop owner. “I could see that these people honestly thought that if something were to happen, that if they were to hit me with their car, it would have been my fault. That’s scary to me.”
While local bicyclists interviewed for this story – Gaertner included – agree that level of harassment is rare, many can point to at least one time they heard angry comments from passing motorists, sometimes accompanied by a tossed projectile or a swift clip from a side-view mirror.
Washington state collision data from 2007 to 2012 show 60 bicyclists have been killed and hundreds more seriously injured in crashes involving motor vehicles. Nearly 1,300 vehicle-bike collisions a year occurred statewide during that time frame and increased steadily – collisions in 2012 were up about 4 percent from 2007. In Spokane County, there were 258 vehicle collisions involving a pedestrian or bicyclist in 2011, according to Spokane Counts, a study from the Spokane Regional Health District. That resulted in a rate of 55 per 100,000 residents. That’s higher than the statewide rate of 46 per 100,000.
Bike-vehicle collisions have held steady in Idaho, where data indicate about 350 collisions happen each year. Since 2007, 18 cyclists have died and nearly 300 more have been seriously injured.
“It’s almost like we as cyclists are conditioned to accept this,” Gaertner said. “It’s not seen as a big deal, except in the bicycling community. We just expect to hear someone is going to get killed. The amount of justice doled out doesn’t seem to fit the situation.”
State laws in Washington and Idaho permit cyclists to ride in the road with all the rights and responsibilities of a driver. They also allow cyclists to ride side-by-side, but no more than two abreast.
Cyclists in Washington and Idaho say the region is becoming more bike-friendly. They point to the Centennial Trail, which hugs the Spokane River and spans 60 miles to connect Coeur d’Alene and Spokane. Bicycle infrastructure has improved, they said, along with city-sponsored programming like Bike To Work Week, which this year included the debut of “Commute of the Century” – six lunchtime rides that covered 100 miles of designated bike routes in Spokane.
Gary Kehr, president of the Spokane Bicycle Club, said the city has recognized the economic and social importance of fostering a biking community. Drivers who harass bicyclists always will exist, he said.
“It’s a really small part of the population that creates noise for the cycling community,” said Kehr, who has been cycling for 40 years. His group includes 271 cyclists. What remains to be seen, he said, is how the city continues to promote the biking community’s interests.
Margaret Watson, former bike club president and avid cyclist, said she remembers the empty beer cans flung at her from passing motorists. As an advocate for the bicycling community since the 1980s – serving on the committees for the Spokane Regional Transportation Council, Spokane Transit Authority and chairing the Bicycle Advisory Board – Watson has worked with officials from all three levels of government to address the safety and inclusion of bicyclists into policy. Though the climate for riders is the best it’s ever been, she said, she recently had an encounter with a rude driver.
“I’ve found that if you just smile and wave at them like you know them, it diffuses the situation a little bit. Getting into a confrontation is not ever a good idea,” Watson said.
Though it’s easy most of the time to shrug off rude gestures, cyclists said, they are much more vulnerable – and have more to lose – to road rage.
A cyclist is the most likely person, at 99.4 percent, to be seriously injured or killed in any collision, according to Washington state data. That’s higher than motorcyclists at 98.4 percent and pedestrians at 96 percent.
Drivers are seriously injured or killed in 49 percent of all collisions involving cars.
About one of seven collisions occurred when the cyclist was using the designated bike lane, according to the data.
Dave Breidenbach, owner of bike shop Spoke ’N Sport, said in most bicycle-vehicle incidents, “it’s a situation where the cyclist had rights but the car didn’t see him.” It’s understandable that cyclists must be naturally on the defensive when on the road with traffic, he said.
“We have our rights as cyclists, but you can’t count on that keeping you safe,” Breidenbach said.
Gaertner said better information and education could cut down on instances of harassment and negligent drivers.
“In this area, I think we’re a culture based on car transportation instead of bicycle and pedestrian,” she said. In communities like Bend, Oregon, and Boulder, Colorado, “the culture has definitely shifted. It’s not a weird thing to see somebody riding their bike down the street; it’s the norm.
“That’s probably where the biggest battle is.”