— Gary Lader, Bethlehem
—Tim Blangger, Upper Macungie Township
A: The Morning Call has covered the death of architect Patrick Ytsma pretty extensively, gentlemen, and in the view through my windshield, that's been very much warranted. The Bethlehem resident was hit by a car Dec. 4 while riding his bike southbound on the Fahy Bridge.
True, each traffic fatality is as tragic as any other, and there have been other deaths in our region since Ystma, a 53-year-old father of two, was struck from behind while crossing the four-lane bridge. But his death generated exceptional public scrutiny and response, mostly because of the shared interests of area bicycling advocates, and the sheer irony of the circumstances.
This guy wasn't just an occasional rider out for a recreational spin. He was an avid bicyclist, commuting for work as well as riding for enjoyment; a tireless advocate for greater use of pedal power in our car-crazed culture, and most importantly, a relentless practitioner of bicycle safety procedures and user of safety equipment.
As Ytsma wrote in an email several years ago, and as many of his fellow riders have observed, he was fanatical wearing all the right safety gear, stopping at every stop sign, hand-signaling every turn, observing every rule of the road with meticulous devotion. To him, it was a matter not only of talking the talk, but riding the ride.
"Because I have heard many fellow motorists state that bicyclists do not 'actually stop' … at stop signs," Ytsma wrote in 2005, "I have made it a point … to come to a complete stop at all stop signs when riding my bicycle. I found it does not really affect my average speed, and it gives me the moral high ground when I observe 99 percent of motor vehicles slipping through stop signs."
I am compelled to admit that the 99 percent of motor vehicles he refers to would include my own car.
Though it was dark, or approaching darkness, when Ytsma was hit about 4:30 or 5 p.m. Dec. 4 (sunset was at 4:35 that day), he wore reflective clothing and used an LED "tail light". Despite that, he was struck by a 79-year-old motorist who told police she simply did not see him. The accident investigation is continuing; no charges had been filed as of Friday.
The basic legal concept regarding bicycles on Pennsylvania roadways is that riders are granted all of the rights afforded to motorists, but must shoulder all the responsibilities as well. This concept seems to escape members of each group at times, though in my experience, motorists are the more frequent violators, which is a problem because the safety threat is borne almost exclusively by bicyclists. Your angry-motorist anecdote is familiar, Tim, even to an infrequent rider like myself. (And by the way, regarding your above-the-fray response: nice work.)
In another confession, I do not halt completely at every stop sign when biking, because sometimes it seems an absurdity. But I'm confident that Ytsma did, which is one reason this particular tragedy seems to have struck such a chord with the public. In a final quirk of irony, I noticed a "share the road" sign prominently posted on the approach to the Fahy Bridge (though on the northbound side).
In first gear I thought perhaps the restricted lanes on the Fahy might have been a factor in the accident, but the narrowing occurs only in the northbound lanes; the southbound side is unaffected. The bridge's only sidewalk, on northbound side, has been closed since Aug. 27, when a routine inspection revealed deterioration of the walk's steel-beam supports. There was no pedestrian access until late October, when a concrete barrier was installed to create a temporary sidewalk. That's the way it will stay until an unspecified future date when the entire bridge will be rehabilitated, said PennDOT engineer Jay McGee.
PennDOT spokesman Ron Young said the bridge is not structurally deficient, but it will need an overhaul not too many miles down the road. The sidewalk is cantilevered off the east side of the bridge, and repairing it now would be wasteful with the bridge rehab soon to come — and there's no money for the job anyway, McGee said. Engineers have marked with orange paint the cracks and deterioration on the main concrete supports for the bridge, to keep track of their progress, if that's the right word.
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