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Ride raises money, awareness for bicycle safety

More than 400 cyclists traversed scenic, rural Baltimore County roads on Sunday to raise money for bicycle safety, paying tribute to a cyclist killed on one of those byways.

The event was the fourth Larry's Ride, launched by family and friends of Larry Bensky after the father of two was fatally struck by a motorist on Butler Road in 2010. His wife, Tami, anticipated raising about $25,000 this year.

"It's amazing that something that starts off as 'let's get together and honor Larry's life' turns into this big thing," she said as cyclists fresh from the ride passed by, volunteers grilled lunch and kids jumped in an inflatable castle.

The goal is to reduce accidents by increasing driver awareness of cyclists. Money raised at the event goes to Bike Maryland, which teaches bicycle safety and works to improve biking conditions in the state.

This year, Larry's Ride comes just a few weeks after an Annapolis High School track and cross country coach was killed in a collision with a motorist on Riva Road in Davidsonville. That crash remains under investigation.

Bike Maryland has called on Anne Arundel County prosecutors to pursue charges against the driver under the state's two-year-old criminally negligent vehicular manslaughter law. The organization said in an email to supporters that there was "reason to be concerned" no charges would be brought because county prosecutors lobbied to repeal the law.

But Anne Colt Leitess, the Anne Arundel County state's attorney, said her agency is trying to strengthen the law, not repeal it.

At issue is a single word. The original bill set a maximum penalty of three years behind bars for motorists causing a death as a result of a "substantial deviation" from driving norms. That was changed to a "gross deviation."

That's similar wording to "gross negligence," the bar set for a Maryland vehicular manslaughter charge that carries a 10-year maximum penalty — reserved for extreme cases such as drunken driving and road racing. It's so similar, Leitess said, that neither her office nor the Baltimore County prosecutors were able to prevail in cases testing the new law.

"What if you're talking on your cell phone and you run a red light and you kill [someone]?" Leitess said, giving an example of the type of offense the new law was meant to address. "That's more than ordinary negligence, and we've argued, 'This is a gross deviation, court,' and they've said, 'No, it's not.'"

Michael Sonnenfeld, a Bike Maryland board member, said he's heard the same concern from other prosecutors. Legislators clearly wanted to create a different standard than the one required for the more serious charge, but if judges don't see it that way, the law ought to be changed, he said.

A separate law in need of fixing is Maryland's requirement that motorists allow a 3-foot buffer when passing cyclists, he said. It has so many exceptions that it boils down to, "You have to allow 3 feet to pass, unless you can't," he said.

Sonnenfeld, an attorney who rode at Sunday's event, didn't know Larry Bensky but was prompted by his death to become active with the biking advocacy group. He was stunned to discover at the time — a year before the negligent-driver law was passed — that a motorist wouldn't face charges for killing a cyclist unless alcohol or road racing was involved.

The motorist who fatally struck Larry Bensky and injured one of his friends received a $500 traffic citation and two points on her driving record, Tami Bensky said. Watching that unfold in court, she said, was "heartbreaking."

"The punishment should fit the crime," she said.

But though she advocated for the negligent-driver law, her focus has largely been on preventing collisions between motorists and cyclists through education. T-shirts sold at the event show a car and a cyclist with the phrase "3 feet please" between them.

Larry's Ride began and ended at Camp Milldale in Reisterstown on Sunday, with 21-mile, 35-mile and 60-mile routes for cyclists to choose from. Joel Wyman of Owings Mills, who designed them, was struck on Butler Road with Larry Bensky in 2010.

Wyman rode the longest route, which takes riders past the spot where the two men were hit. From there, cyclists winded along country roads back to Camp Milldale in beautiful weather.

Tami Bensky chatted with incoming riders, offering smiles and hugs, because this tribute to her husband isn't meant to be funeral.

"It's really a lot of fun," she said.

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