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Bicycle safety advocates step up county efforts

The Baltimore Sun

Rick Wilson's father taught him how to ride a bike.

The pair, who lived on the Carroll County side of Mount Airy, used to travel into Howard County on the weekends to ride the paths.

But one summer day in August 1979, Wilson's father did not come home. As he was cycling along Route 27, when it used to be a rural road, he was hit by a truck and killed.

Wilson, now an Ellicott City resident, did not pick up a bike for 17 years, but he started riding again 12 years ago for health reasons. He was principal of Glenwood Middle School for five years and will start the next school year as principal of Folly Quarter Middle.

But Wilson has taken on more than his school duties. He heads cyclist education and safety for the Bicycling Advocates of Howard County, a coalition formed in February to address bike safety issues through education and being an advocate for legislation. The organization has nearly 200 members and 13 who serve on its executive board.

"There's no doubt that Howard County is becoming more populated, and the roads are getting tighter with more vehicles," Wilson said. "It's not as safe as any of us, bikers or drivers, would like for it to be."

And that calls for action, Wilson said, adding that he believes road safety is the dual responsibility of cyclists and drivers.

"It's too easy for bikers to point fingers at the drivers, and conversely, for the drivers to blame bikers for road issues," Wilson said. "There needs to be an understanding that bikers have the right to be on the road, but that they also have a responsibility to be smart about it."

Wilson has a particular concern for Howard County students who want to bike to school. Wilson said riding to school is a great way to instill a healthy lifestyle in students, but safety issues concern him. He is the Howard County schools liaison for BAHC.

Jack Guarneri, chairman of BAHC, estimated that there are more than 1,000 cyclists in Howard County. Of those, he said 90 percent are recreational and sport cyclists, meaning they ride primarily in the spring, summer and fall. The other 10 percent are people who commute daily to work or to public transportation hubs, even in winter.

But summertime is when cyclists have to be the most aware, said Guarneri, an Ellicott City resident who is an operations analyst at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. He is especially concerned about drivers being less patient with the increasing number of cyclists in western Howard County, where the roads and shoulders are narrower.

BAHC is taking several preventive steps in the near term, he said, including posting "Share the Road" signs, planning safe-riding seminars and creating brochures for drivers about sharing the road with cyclists.

"But we need long-term action," Guarneri said. "We have to increase the width of shoulders on the roads, and we have to be building roads that are conducive to cyclists. We need to create a bike master plan."

And county officials are listening.

The Department of Planning and Zoning aims to start work on a bike master plan as early as next year, said Brian Muldoon, a transportation planner. It will closely resemble the Pedestrian Master Plan, which was devised last year and calls for creating and improving walkways throughout the county over the next several years. A similar plan for bikes will include requirements and plans for dedicated bike lanes and commuter routes.

"It's very difficult and very cost-prohibitive to try and go back and change roads that have already been constructed," Muldoon said. "So we have to look forward. And that's what this plan is about: creating an environment that makes biking a safe option."

The Baltimore Metropolitan Council and the Maryland Department of Transportation have instituted bike plans for Howard County. But Muldoon said a more detailed plan developed by the county is necessary because planners would be more familiar with the roads and be more accountable to residents.

That does not mean action is waiting until next year. The county is undertaking youth-oriented efforts, such as making bike helmets available to kids. Every month, the county compiles a list of biking accidents (there were three in May and one in April). Muldoon said there have been two county bike fatalities in the past five years.

And although funds are tight, Muldoon acknowledged, projects such as the U.S. 1 revitalization include bike lanes and safety features. This is in response to an increasing number of residents who cycle to work as a way to combat rising gas prices and practice a more eco-friendly way of life. Howard Transit buses are installing bike racks, and the county plans to expand park-and-rides.

For many cyclists, even experienced riders, change cannot come soon enough. Randy Nixon of West Friendship, who has been racing for 27 years, was riding in May in Glenwood when an 88-year-old woman hit him and drove away without stopping.

"Americans don't think about anything else while driving. Probably because American cars are way too nice," Nixon quipped.

"But really, this is something that is good for the community and can help the environment," the owner of Nixon's Farm continued. "We need to educate motorists and cyclists, put up signs, improve right-of-way access. This is the time to step forward and take action."

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