Op-Ed

With drivers distracted by their phone, I’m off my bike

A ghost bike marks the spot of a fatal accident.
A ghost bike marks the spot of a fatal accident.

In the 1960s, my sports-oriented parents declared Pee Wee Football off limits for my brothers and me. Pee Wee Football suits up 10-year-olds in uniforms, pads, and helmets to have fun running, blocking, and tackling. My parents however wanted no concussions. They had a common sense about risk that I did not then appreciate, though my brothers and I followed their lead.

Fast forward 25-plus years. I began riding a light-weight road bike. It was magical and fun, and I rode it as much as possible. High performance bikes make you feel like you are flying. I biked with friends Saturday mornings. I biked to work. I biked across North Carolina twice. With 25,000 others, I biked the Five Boros Tour in New York City.

I love biking. I bought my wife a bike and was happy when my two sons started biking. One peddled from San Francisco to Beaufort, North Carolina. The other biked in Philadelphia as part of his employment.

I’m a professor of environmental science at Duke University where many colleagues and students ride bikes, but in 2015 a bike accident hit close to home. A colleague, Dr. Rafe Sagarin, 43, was killed when an impaired truck driver smashed his bicycle shortly after Rafe moved from Duke to the University of Arizona. Rafe was a very talented, perhaps a genius marine scientist whom I had gotten to know from seminars and conversations over coffee.

Then this last summer, I loaded my bike in my wife’s trunk and drove the car to an auto mechanic for routine car repair. After delivering the car, I biked home. Along NC-70 west of Durham, cars zipped by me whose drivers, I was certain were texting. I was then abruptly cut off by a car pulling into a gas station. I remember the sudden closeness of the car’s blinker and brake lights. Without blame or belligerence, I followed the cutoff car into the gas station and cautiously approached the driver then at the gas pump. Without looking at me directly, the driver simply and quietly stated, “Hon’, I didn’t see you”. The rest of the way home, with cars passing me, I lost my biker’s confidence. I was spooked in a way I could not control.

Since that summer ride, I’ve been reading about bicycle deaths of professors I do not know, but whom I am certain share my passion for biking – Coe College psychologist Daniel Lehn, 58, University of California-Davis plant scientist Kentaro Inoue, 47, and retired University of Maryland Distinguished Professor Ned Gaylin, 81.

But it was the young Ashley Block, a student of University of Georgia, who motivated me to make a hard decision about biking. Ashley was 25 in September of 2016, a highly energetic, upbeat, and brilliant student who worked at my research site in South Carolina. On Monday September 12, Ashley and two other bike riders were struck head on by an SUV that had crossed the centerline of a road in Athens, Georgia. Ashley was thrown from her bike into a roadside ditch and pronounced dead at the scene. The driver was using a cell phone, was allegedly chemically impaired, and had two previous DUIs in the 90 days prior to Ashley’s death.

We all respect and honor ghost bikes and memorial rides that follow the tragic deaths of fallen bikers around the world. But after Ashley, I’m siding with my parent’s common sense about Pee Wee Football and risk. I’ve hung my bike from the ceiling in my garage, to be ridden only on special occasions, out of respect for all the Ashleys, Rafes, Kentaros, Daniels, Neds, and the many others both in the past and are yet to come. Too many car drivers are using cell phones, alcohol, and drugs. Let us continue to work for bike-safe roads, but in the meantime, my bike hangs in the garage.

Daniel deB. Richter is a professor at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

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