Two Missoula trials have drawn attention to conflicts between bikers and drivers, and some locals say car-bike tension is on the rise.
When Brad Applegate decided to ride his bicycle in the middle of the right-hand southbound lane of South Reserve Street on a cold morning last December, he was confident that he was practicing safe and responsible cycling. After all, Applegate maintains, the designated bicycle lane was obstructed by snow, ice and other debris left behind after a recent snowfall, and a close call with a horse trailer earlier in his commute convinced him he needed to command the entire lane to make himself as visible and predictable to motorists as possible.
“I did what all of my training and all of my instincts told me to do,” Applegate said on March 8, six days before his jury trial for “failing to ride down the right side of roadway.”
Applegate, who was commuting to a substitute teaching job that morning, was cited after an off-duty Missoula police officer witnessed his riding and called it in. But Applegate, firmly believing he broke no laws, refused to admit guilt and pay a fine (the maximum is $150 though he likely would have been let off with a smaller surcharge) and opted on taking the case to court instead.
“I know in my heart I did nothing wrong,” Applegate said prior to his trial.
On March 14, in Missoula Municipal Court, a six-member jury sided with the city. Now Applegate will have to pay about $400 in fines and jury fees.
“A half-day of substitute teaching pays $35 but it cost me $400 to get there,” Applegate said after finding out the full extent of his court-ordered legal fines and fees.
In an unrelated case, Missoula cyclist Geoffrey Gilbert is challenging two citations he received in January after a run-in with a patrolman. Gilbert, through his attorney, refused to comment on the pending court case, however, an account of the incident was posted on the Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation’s (MIST) website (www.strans.org). According to the account, Gilbert was riding his bicycle when he approached a patrol car that had pulled over in the bike lane. According to the account, Gilbert moved to the left and “was well out of the way of danger,” but when he passed the patrol car the officer opened the driver’s side door. The online account claims Gilbert “politely reminded” the officer to “be careful opening” a car door into traffic as Gilbert passed by. The officer pursued Gilbert and stopped him.
After initially refusing to provide the officer with identification, Gilbert was arrested for “obstructing a peace officer” and “failing to yield to an emergency vehicle,” charges he has indicated he plans to challenge in court. A trial date has not yet been set.
These incidents bring to the fore the unending frustration Missoula’s cyclists and motorists experience in a community that increasingly relies on non-motorized transportation.
Sgt. Shawn Paul, supervisor of the Missoula Police Department’s Traffic Safety Unit, says there isn’t a new concerted effort to crack down on cyclists, but he adds that since taking over as supervisor four years ago he has constantly stressed the importance of enforcing bicycle and pedestrian laws.
“Not just that vehicles are watching out for bikes and ped[estrian]s but that bikes and peds are doing what they are supposed to be doing,” Paul says. “I think that has slowly started to trickle down and has slowly started to increase the awareness of some of the officers.”
Paul says cyclists who flagrantly violate traffic laws, by blowing through traffic signals or stop signs and riding the wrong way down one-way streets, exacerbate the frustrations motorists have with bicycle riders. They also cause more crashes.
“Our statistics, statewide and citywide, show that 50 percent of all bicyclist/vehicle related crashes…are the bicyclists’ fault. So it’s not just the vehicles that are not paying attention and causing accidents, it’s the bicyclists too.”
According to Phil Smith, program manager for the Missoula Bicycle/Pedestrian Program, surveys show that between 5 and 10 percent of Missoulians commute to work on bikes as compared to the national average of around 2 percent. And while the number of complaints his office receives has substantially reduced in the 10 years since Smith started his job, he says there’s always tension between commuter groups.
“Periodically there will be some kind of an incident that seems to fan the fire, something that throws some sparks up into the air,” Smith says. “When you see a flare up over one or two incidents…I can’t consider it a trend.”
But Bob Giordano, executive director of MIST and program director for Free Cycles Missoula, a nonprofit cycling resource organization, says tensions are on the rise.
“Anecdotally I’m hearing about people who have been in some kind of altercation, whether it’s a close call or a crash or a dispute,” Giordano says. “As someone who rides a bike every day several miles, I see more and more tension.”
Giordano says part of that tension is due to the fact Missoula’s bicycle infrastructure is incomplete.
“The city has done a fairly good job of getting the bike system going, but it’s half-complete,” Giordano says. “Like a circuit board, it won’t fire if you have gaps. It’s when you get a complete and continuous system that it will then work and I think it will promote a much better understanding of, and adherence to, traffic rules by everyone, especially cyclists.”
Smith agrees that there’s still a lot of work to be done on improving Missoula’s bicycle infrastructure and connecting trails and bike lanes, but he says that the current system has dramatically improved conditions for cyclists and motorists over the last decade.
For commuters like Applegate, though, subjectivity in the laws that govern cycling, along with a lack of driver understanding with cyclists, keeps the tension lingering.
“People who don’t ride a bike on a regular basis don’t understand what cyclists are up against,” Applegate says. “All kinds of people in Missoula have all kinds of aggression and hostility toward cyclists. I think that comes from a lack of understanding. They see a biker in the middle of the road and they think, ‘Why aren’t they off to the right side where they belong?’”