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Let's Learn From This Spring's Bike Tragedies

05/04/2015 06:26 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2016

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My wife confessed something to me this week: whenever I leave on a bike ride here in Vermont, whether it's a brief 15-mile jaunt or a journey that will last 30 to 50 miles, she says a little prayer. She prays that I will come home safely.

She shared this with me because already this spring three Vermonters have died in collisions between cars and bikes. Two of them were men riding their bicycles, and a third was a teenage boy behind the wheel. These are horrific tragedies, and we need to learn from them.

But let's begin here: a bicyclist has no chance against a car or a truck. No chance at all. And while bicyclists do not always behave perfectly -- I have seen them race through stop signs - most bicyclists I know obey the rules of the road and understand that safety lives along the shoulders of the road.

And yet many drivers find bicyclists vexing at best and infuriating at worst. I've had passengers in cars throw banana peels and water bottles at me as they have passed. I had one driver squeal to a stop ahead of me on an utterly deserted two-lane road, exit his car, and threaten to beat me senseless for not biking on the shoulder. Just for the record, there was no shoulder.

Emily Boedecker, executive director of Local Motion, a Vermont nonprofit that promotes people-powered transportation, told me that the "driver versus bicyclist" paradigm is a mistake. "What can we do to change the conversation around our roads?" she began. "It's not about the vehicle. It's about the person. After all, I'm a walker. I'm a biker. I'm a driver. We need to think about our actions as people. We need to have an awareness that this is a shared space from the moment we leave our driveways."

After all, she added, a driver is "responsible for thousands of pounds of steel moving at a very fast speed. These are not accidents of fate; these are collisions."

In addition to the basics -- driving sober and within the speed limit, and never texting -- there are other things a person behind the wheel can do to decrease the likelihood of hitting a bicyclist. Here are a few:

• "Leave enough space when you're driving," suggested Doug Costa, a bicyclist who works at Earl's Cyclery and Fitness in Williston. "The bike has a right to the road, too, and if the bike has to swerve suddenly, you've created a dangerous situation."

• "Be aware that the cyclist is dealing with uneven conditions," Boedecker said. "Potholes, gravel, lack of shoulders. Know that they have to anticipate and react to hazards." I would add to that two important realities: All Vermont roads are punished by winter and often the shoulder is so chewed up that a bicyclist has to edge closer to the center of the road. Second, our highway budgets - both local and federal - have often been eviscerated lately, which has meant that even new roads have shoulders that can only be called slender.

• Don't honk at a bicyclist if he or she is riding on the side and you simply want to announce you are approaching. The bicyclist's reflex is to turn to the left, and thus inadvertently pull the bike more toward the center of the road - and possibly right into the path of your vehicle.

• Wait a few extra moments to pass the bicyclist if conditions demand it. Trust me, that extra five or ten seconds you are behind the bicycle is nothing compared to the disasters that loom if you pass before it's safe for everyone.

Finally, I love this last piece of advice that Boedecker shared: "Think of the smile on that bicyclist's face - that guy, that gal, that kid, that grandpa - as they are breathing the fresh air and noticing the turkeys in the field."

Indeed. I clear my head and feed my soul when I bike, and I often solve scenes in whatever novel I'm writing. It's among my favorite parts of my life.

There were memorial rides Sunday and Monday for fallen cyclists Kelly Boe and Richard Tom. The ride for Boe was in Middlebury; the ride for Tom was in Hinesburg.

As we mourn the deaths of three of our neighbors, let's take a lesson from my lovely bride and pray that the rest of biking season is free of collisions between cars and bikes, and these are the last memorial rides for a long, long time.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on May 3. The paperback of Chris's most recent novel, "Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands," arrives on May 26.)