I never met Dr. Roger Grooters, but he was clearly a remarkable guy. He and his wife, Vickie, lived in Gulf Breeze, right across the bay from Pensacola. At 66 years of age, after a distinguished career of mentoring student athletes at some of the country’s best universities, he set off on a cross-country ride to highlight the plight of Gulf Coast oil spill victims.
Starting in California on September 10th with a ceremonial wheel-dip in the Pacific, Grooters had covered over 2200 miles, was back home in Florida, and expected to finish his ride this weekend. He was pedaling east on Highway 20 in Bay County Wednesday morning when a pickup truck struck him from behind. He died at the scene.
I know the road. It’s actually a good choice for cyclists — arrow-straight, with much lower traffic than the other east/west corridor, Highway 98. The route offers a distraction-free ride through small towns and long stands of pine forest. Grooters was off the road surface and moving along the paved shoulder when he was killed. State troopers report the driver of the pickup truck was “distracted.” Charges are pending further investigation.
Florida leads the U.S. in cyclist fatalities
This sort of thing happens far too often in the Sunshine State. Florida has led the United States in cyclist fatalities ever year since 2001. This is despite the fact that other states have more bicycles on the road, and speaks strongly to the need for better driver education, improved bike infrastructure, better enforcement of existing traffic codes, and perhaps some system of motor vehicle inspection.
Though other types of crashes are more common, most cyclist fear being hit from the rear above all else. There’s no warning, no chance to react, and the consequences are usually disastrous. Motorists routinely pass cyclists far closer than is legal or prudent, and this doesn’t take into consideration the dangerous minority of drivers who intentionally bully and harass bicycle traffic.
Do I feel safe on a bicycle? No form of transportation is without risk. But, yes, I’m actually more comfortable these days traveling on a bike than locked in a steel box. I realize this comfort is more a product of habit than fact. If you’re a cyclist, you are slightly more likely to be killed or injured in a traffic mishap than a motorist. Knowing the circumstances under which cyclists are usually struck can dramatically improve your safety. So can proper equipment, an abundance of caution, and smooth, predictable riding habits.
Based on media reports of Dr. Grooters’ death, it doesn’t sound as if he could have done anything differently. He was a fit, experienced cyclist. In photographs on his blog, he’s dressed in a bright safety vest, wearing a helmet, and riding well to the right on the road.
A quick review for cyclists and motorists
The loss of Roger Grooters is heartbreaking. I’ve been impressed, though, with the unreserved expressions of sympathy from motorists and bicyclists alike. While I’m not an attorney, and vehicle codes vary from state to state, let’s take a few minutes to review our responsibilities to each other when sharing the roadway.
Cyclists: Bicycles are vehicles, just like cars. Legally speaking, cyclists are drivers. We are bound to the same rules of conduct as motorists. There are special exceptions which apply to bicycle traffic, but remembering our duty to abide the same laws as cars goes a long way toward making cyclist predictable, equal partners on the pavement.
When marked bike lanes are available, we are obligated to use them. Some municipalities allow cyclists to function as pedestrians on sidewalks. Bicycles are otherwise expected operate on the street. Most vehicle codes mandate that cyclist ride as far to the right of the right lane as is reasonable. By this, it means the marked road surface. This is an important point for both cyclists and motorists, and greatly misunderstood: The road surface is the area between the center line of a highway and the solid white line along the right side of the road. Blacktop beyond the white line (sometimes called the fog line) is paved shoulder, which is not part of the road surface. Cyclists have the option of operating on paved shoulder, but are not required to do so. It’s sometimes safer; sometimes not. Paved shoulders are magnets for glass, debris, and potholes, and may end without warning. This would force you back into traffic — perhaps suddenly. Abrupt changes of direction are dangerous. Some roads will have gutters beyond the shoulder, and cyclist should never put a wheel in one.
It is not “reasonable” or safe to hug the fog line. Riding too far to the right can present its own hazards. Cyclists need room to avoid debris and obstacles. Road designers understand this, and assume the average cyclist requires about three and a half feet from the edge of the road surface. This is a lot more than many motorists expect, but that’s what we need to ride safely. You and your bike are a couple of feet wide, and even the smoothest rider wobbles.
You may take the entire lane under certain circumstances, such as when the road is too narrow to allow vehicles to pass with the required three foot clearance. You’re also allowed, in most states, to take the entire left hand turn lane when navigating an intersection. This makes the cyclist more visible in a complicated traffic situation, and is my practice.
Riding in twilight or after dark requires a bicycle equipped with a white headlamp, a red taillight, and (in Florida, at least), a fixed reflector. It’s impossible to overdo lighting and reflective clothing.
Motorists: Start by reading the cyclist section, particularly the part about what constitutes the road surface. I most frequently hear two complaints about bicycle riders: That we run red lights and stop signs (as do motorists), and that we ride “in the middle of the road.” The latter case is pretty rare, though it may be both legal and prudent for a cyclist to ride further out in the lane than motorists think proper.
Cyclists are your fellow drivers. We’re all trying to get down the highway safely. The big difference, of course, is that motorists aren’t likely to suffer injury if they attempt to occupy the same piece of pavement as a bicycle. Cyclist have little protection, and every 10 miles per hour at impact cuts our chance of survival by about 30 percent. Please keep speed limits in mind when bicycles are present.
As mentioned above, you must give a cyclist three feet of space when passing. That’s three feet clear from the furthest extension of your automobile to the three and a half feet in which a cyclist operates. It doesn’t matter if it’s a narrow drive or rush hour on a multi-lane highway. If you can’t do this in your current lane, you should signal and move into the next. If this isn’t possible, you have no choice but to hang back a moment until traffic conditions change.
In practice, motorists rarely give cyclists sufficient room when overtaking. This is why so many people are afraid to ride, and is a contributing factor in many car-bicycle crashes. Another deadly motorist error is closely passing a cyclist, then turning right across his or her path.
Some municipalities allow streetside parking. This presents danger for both motorists and people on bikes. When a cyclist is passing parked cars, the rider has no choice but to come out into the lane up to four feet in order not to be “doored” by motorists exiting their vehicles. Be prepared for this, particularly in areas with parking meters. These are a sure sign that people will be coming and going.
To find out more about cars, bikes, and the law
If you really want to go digging, the Florida Bicycle Associate is among the groups who work with state authorities to develop guides summarizing the vehicle codes. A PDF copy of the FBA’s most recent edition is here. They also maintain a highlight page. Commute Orlando has compiled a useful guide to sharing the road, reprinted by the FBA here. Other states have similar groups and resources.
The big thing to keep in mind is general courtesy. This can be hard when you’re in a hurry to get somewhere, the weather is bad, or you’ve had a tough day at the office. But we owe it to the families of riders like Dr. Roger Grooters — and to each other.
Roger Grooters left behind a blog about his charity ride, Roger’s Cross Country Adventure. His family requests that in lieu of flowers, well-wishers support Dr. Grooters’ Ride Across America by making a donation to assist victims of the Gulf Coast Oil Spill online.