Bicycle advocates urge care on the roads

Geoff Matrangola and his wife, Dede, went out with friends for a Memorial Day bike ride from their home in Clarksville. The group was headed for Montgomery County but never made it there.

Shortly after crossing the bridge over Brighton Dam, Matrangola crashed into something — he still can't recall what it was — went over the handlebars and onto the roadway. An instant before, one of his friends had lost control of his bike after swerving to avoid whatever Matrangola hit.

Matrangola, 40, sustained a severe concussion, and Dave Dash wound up under a guardrail with several broken ribs.

"We can't say that it was a motorist or a deer or a bear," Matrangola said last week.

Matrangola, who says wearing a helmet saved his life, is using his accident to help educate other cyclists. That's why the software engineer appeared at a news conference last week at The Mall in Columbia with his dented helmet in hand as part of a statewide campaign called Street Smart. Officials hope to promote awareness of road safety among motorists, cyclists and pedestrians.

While cyclists must take proper precautions, Matrangola said, "it's also important for motorists to understand that if they're driving down a nice country road in the middle of the afternoon, there could be someone lying in the middle of the street. You have to be aware all the time. Someone on a cellphone is not going to see that."

Among the Street Smart tips for motorists are: allow a clearance of three feet when passing bicyclists, yield to pedestrians and cyclists when turning, and look before opening a car door. Pedestrians are warned to cross at marked crosswalks, to look left, right and left again before crossing, and to make sure they are visible after dark or in bad weather. Cyclists should use hand signals when turning, make themselves as visible as possible and never ride against traffic.

According to Howard County police and the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, there are about 1,700 pedestrian-involved and 500 bicycle-involved crashes a year in the Baltimore region, with an average of 52 fatalities.

Jack Guanari, president of the county's Bicycle Advocates group, made up of members from four racing clubs, said he was run off Route 108 four years ago by a motorist turning into her driveway. He was far more fortunate than his longtime neighbor Nathan Krasnopoler, who was struck while riding his bike to school last February in Baltimore.

Krasnopoler, a student at the Johns Hopkins University, was pinned for about 20 minutes under the car. Jeannette Marie Walke, 83, was cited for negligent driving and failure to yield right of way to a cyclist in a designated bike lane. Though wearing a helmet, Krasnopoler, 20, was left in a coma with catastrophic brain injuries from which he is not expected to make a meaningful recovery.

Attorney Andrew G. Slutkin, who filed suit against the driver, said Krasnopoler's family is "comfortable" with the charges and did not want to see the woman put in jail.

Darrell Mobley, deputy secretary of the state Department of Transportation, said that while the number of fatalities among drivers in Maryland has dropped in the past seven years through a variety of initiatives and campaigns such as the Click It or Ticket seat belt program, officials "remain frustrated by the annual number of pedestrian deaths in Maryland that remain fairly constant."

About 100 pedestrian deaths occur in the state annually, including a handful involving cyclists, Mobley said. More than one-third of the crashes involving pedestrians or bicycles occur in Baltimore.

"As drivers, we tend to look out for other drivers. It's human nature," Mobley said. "But Maryland's transportation system isn't simply about roads and cars, it's about pedestrian and bicycle access, too. … The unfortunate thing is that when you pit a car or truck against a pedestrian, that car or truck will win every time."

Guanari said Bicycle Advocates was formed four years ago partly because "cyclists were getting scared" and partly because of an increase in the number of cyclists, many of whom were training for triathlons such as the one held Saturday in Columbia.

"We had 8,000 people on the roads for different events through the year, and what we discovered was that a lot of them were new to bicycling, they didn't know what the rules of the roads were, and we wanted to educate them," Guanari said. "In places like Baltimore City, they assume the bicyclist screwed up, not the driver."

Added Guanari, "The roads are getting more crowded, there are more near-incidents, there are more drivers that are acting more aggressive toward cycling, and part of what we wanted to do was to combat that."

County Executive Ken Ulman, who describes himself as a recreational cyclist, said that while Columbia was among the first communities in Maryland to have designated bike paths, "they didn't think destinational, getting from your house to the mall safely on a bike. … Particularly in downtown Columbia, there are big, sweeping roads that allow vehicles to go very fast."

Ulman said the proposed redevelopment of downtown Columbia is "getting us to focus on streetscapes and complete streets with sidewalks and bike lanes and parking areas."

Guanari said many adults, including his children, are unaware of the laws regarding motorists and cyclists — or that more severe penalties for vehicular homicide will go into effect Oct. 1. A motorist found to have operated a vehicle in a "criminally negligent manner" could face a charge that carries a penalty of up to three years in jail.

Advocates of the Street Smart program also warn pedestrians "to cross like your life depended on it."

It will be another month to six weeks before Matrangola is cleared to ride again, but as he prepares to get back on his bike, he said he will be more alert than ever.

"I will certainly keep an eye for things coming off the side of the road, something I wasn't always cognizant of before," he said. "As far as keeping an eye out and being more aware, it will certainly be part of the equation."

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