Growing danger keeps bicyclist off Bay Area roads (4/30/2001)

Growing danger keeps bicyclist off Bay Area roads
	By L.A. Chung, Mercury News Staff Columnist
San Jose Mercury News | Monday, 30-Apr-2001

At one time, bicycle riding in the Bay Area was a joy.

I've been on busy roads all over -- along Sunnyvale-Saratoga
Road from Cupertino to Los Gatos, on Portola Avenue between
Capitola and UC-Santa Cruz, along Page Mill Road en route to
Stanford, all along Grizzly Peak Road in Berkeley.  And on The
Embarcadero in San Francisco.

Before helmets and road rage and the abandonment of driver
education in the public schools in California, one could
reasonably expect drivers to know the rules of the road.  And
one could reasonably expect to be safe riding a bike on the
road.  All that went out the window.

Long before the death of 24-year-old Michelle Lynn O'Connor on
Franklin and Oak streets in San Francisco Friday, before the
death of 53-year-old Trudy Heskett in Fremont ... even long
before a judge threw out felony charges against the trucker
accused of killing Chris Robertson last November, I stopped
riding my bike most places.  I'm a motorist.

Not because I'm lazy.

But because I'm afraid.  I'm fortunate enough to make enough
money to have choices in how I get to work and how I enjoy my
spare time.  And I choose not to ride.

Is it any wonder that people correctly predicted the Critical
Mass on Friday night would carry more edge, more bottled-up
frustration than in previous years?  Is it any wonder -- with
another death Friday on the streets of San Francisco -- that
police braced for a raucous ride?

The last-Friday-of-the-month ritual ride at rush hour has taken
on more significance because people feel unsafe, at risk and
frustrated.  We're all targets on the road.  It's not because
motorists are evil.  But the need for education is obvious.

``We would have been happy if it had gone to trial,'' said Jean
Davis, a friend of Robertson's who worked hard on getting felony
manslaughter charges pressed, only to see a judge reduce them to
misdemeanor assault charges that could still result in trial but
are more likely to simply be plea bargained.  ``The defense said
it was politically motivated.  But what else are we supposed to
do?  Someone dear to us has been killed.''

Look, let's be honest.  Do we really care about Chris Robertson?
Or Cecy Krone in Marin?

Probably not.  Most of us don't know either of them.

But all of us care about our friends, our parents, our siblings,
our colleagues ... our children.

So we should care about the Chris Robertson.  As an idea.  As a
brother, son, friend, colleague, our own selves who could be at
risk someday.  Sometimes it's the biker's fault.  Sometimes it's
the motorist's fault.  Sometimes, it's no one's fault.

But anyone who has been on city streets and Bay Area highways
knows that there's no patience out there.  Everyone is in a
hurry, everyone thinks he or she has the right of way.  And
everyone seems to shave the margin of error down to nil.

``It was an accident,'' is really more like, ``It was a crash
waiting to happen.''  Behavior on the roads, whether there are
bicyclists on them or not, has gotten to the point where cutting
people off, speeding and making dangerous lane changes are the

Robertson's friend, Eric Murphy, wonders whether rowdy Critical
Mass events, like the massive action three years ago that
created a huge traffic mess for motorists, help or hurt the
effort to get respect for the bicyclists.  ``But what do you
do?'' he asked with despair.  ``You try to use the court system;
you can't get police to enforce rights of bicyclists.  What's
left to do except some sort of agitation?''

Sometimes, I think the answer is so simple it's breath-taking.

``The prescription is basic courtesy and respect,'' said San
Francisco Supervisor Mark Leno, addressing the protesters at
City Hall on Friday.

Sometimes, I think it wouldn't be such a bad thing if gas prices
went sky high.

The roads might be a little less congested, people might
recalibrate their expectations and we might appreciate the
privilege of driving a little bit more.
Contact L.A. Chung at or 415/394-6881.

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