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Bike safety means sharing the road with cars, obeying stop signs

Greg Larson is surprised that more bicyclists aren't killed or seriously injured whizzing across the Heartland Trail into oncoming traffic. That's because he almost became a statistic in 2005, when he rode off the trail on his bike into the side ...

Headwaters 100 bikers
During the Headwaters 100, bikers (in the background) fanned out across the eastbound lane of traffic on County Road 24, causing approaching motorists to slam on the brakes. The hilly terrain impeded visibility. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Greg Larson is surprised that more bicyclists aren't killed or seriously injured whizzing across the Heartland Trail into oncoming traffic.

That's because he almost became a statistic in 2005, when he rode off the trail on his bike into the side of a car crossing on a gravel road that intersected the trail.

"I'd crossed that intersection hundreds of times," he said. On this evening, over the July 4th holiday, he just sped on by, not thinking.

"A vehicle came, I slammed on my brakes and without time to cushion the fall or put my arms up I was on the pavement," he recalled. He broke several bones in his shoulder.

As more cyclists take to the roads and trails, it's a no-brainer that more collisions with vehicles are the inevitable result.

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To date nine cyclists have died on Minnesota roadways in 2008.

Recent statistics released by the Department of Public Safety indicate that 1,020 bike crashes occurred in 2007, causing 979 injuries.

And Larson's tuchis-over-teakettle mishap was symptomatic of the main reason for those crashes - failure to yield.

Other reasons cited by DPS are driver inattention or distraction and disregard for traffic devices.

Larson readily admits he may be the poster child for those reasons as well.

"When you bike on the Heartland Trail it's different from biking on the road," he rationalized. "You don't think of traffic, you don't see traffic, you have almost literally a tunnel in front of you," he said.

Larson said he "was in a zone" of exercise, and just missed the stop sign.

"Two people have been killed in the last few years and I think that's what happened - they just didn't look," he said.

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"That's a concern we have, is people running these stop signs," said David Schotzko, DNR area supervisor for Trails & Waterways.

"With the increase in bike use due to high gas prices, the number of bike accidents is rising considerably," he said.

Larson would like to see warnings painted on the trail pavement alerting bikers of the stop signs ahead. He said the tiny stop signs on the trail now are posted low to the ground, obviously intended for snowmobilers They're easily overlooked by bicyclists.

Schotzko isn't convinced that would help, but said he and the DNR would listen to concerns.

"I don't think putting paint or rumble strips in the pavement is going to help," he said. "I think they get in a zone and it becomes a habit. Maybe 99 percent to 100 percent of the time there's no cars coming and they just keep going."

He said bicyclists view stop signs as an inconvenience and that concerns both the DNR and DPS.

"There are a number of people who are not even acknowledging the stop signs, just taking them for granted that they're a rolling stop," Schotzko said.

Both agencies expressed concern about "sharing the road" since so many bikers have forsaken the trails for the highways.

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During the Headwaters 100 bike ride Sept. 27, some near-misses between cars and bicycists occurred as motorists screeched to a halt to avoid cyclists riding four abreast on the highways.

One particularly dangerous spot was County Road 24, where hilly terrain obstructed motorists' view as bikers were routed along this road to the Mantrap Valley Conservation Club. It served as one of the respite stations.

Schotzko says just as motorists are impatient, so, too, are cyclists.

"They want to get from Point A to Point B in a hurry," he said.

Larson said he's always "been hyper-sensitive" about stopping but just had a momentary lapse that night.

"All that summer I noticed again and again and again families going through intersections without looking," he said. It concerned the county commissioner that families were ignoring the stop signs, putting their kids in jeopardy.

"We don't want to see people shooting out onto the highways," Schotzko agreed. "

Schotzko said 2008 trail surveys show traffic on designated bike trails is down this summer because out-of-state visitors can't afford the gas to drive to the trails. He questions the accuracy of those surveys. Larson, who jogs on the trails nowadays, believes use is up - way up.

Gary and Susan Lawrence were using the trail Saturday. They're Iowans who came here for the weekend.

They stopped at the County Road 4 intersection - reluctantly.

We don't necessarily come to a dead stop," Gary Lawrence said, "but we have a lot of these rails to trails in Iowa and we're used to them. We don't just head out into traffic on major highways," he said as a truck sped by.

The Lawrences said they view stop signs as "suggestions to pause."

They were more concerned about the number of cyclists they saw riding without helmets.

"You swerve for one ground squirrel and you're a ward of the state forever," Gary Lawrence said, shaking his head at the absurdity of riding unprotected.

Schotzko, who appeared before the Hubbard County board last week to present plans for a snowmobile trail, said he heard commissioners say, "you can't legislate common sense."

For now the DNR will concentrate on the trail markings and leave the rest to riders' common sense.

"Stop means stop," he warned.

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