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Sharing the road

One very pleasant September evening I was visiting with my folks (John and Jean) out on the front porch back at the Oakland shop. This in itself was a very rare occurrence since we all lead such busy lives and live 50 miles apart. For some lucky reason however, we were able to share this brief 30 minute snapshot in time on that gorgeous Indian summer eve.

My dad (John) had just recently retired from a long and strenuous career in heavy construction and is starting to realize that he has all this free time to do whatever he wants. My mom (Jean) is and always was the glue that has held our family together. She also loves (not likes) to ride around with my dad in his show winning 33 Ford Roadster. It is black with flames and has great big power (about 500hp). This car is beautiful! What’s more beautiful to me though is to see them riding around in it and going on trips and such with their hot rod club. Swear to god they look like a couple of high school kids out having a good time when they’re in that car.
One of the things my folks are doing a lot more of is riding their bicycles. My dad likes to ride his road bike out in the Suisun Valley area and my mom prefers the Green Valley Road out and back bike path. All in all they are both having a good time and getting healthier (yes folks it shows). As they were telling stories of some of the rides they like to do, one story really bothered me. It was one my dad told.

He was telling me of an incident he had while completing a loop he often rides up Suisun Valley Road. For most of you who aren’t familiar with the Suisun Valley it’s basically a rural and agricultural area where there are a lot of vineyards and orchards. It is surrounded by rolling hills covered with wild oats and many different kinds of oak trees. It’s a beautiful place to ride a bike – until you have an encounter like my dad had.

If you know the area you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you don’t know the area just try to visualize as best you can.

As you travel up Suisun Valley Road there is a very narrow bridge over a creek about a mile from Rockville Corner where there is barely enough room for two small cars to pass at the same time. You locals know this bridge. From that bridge to Rockville corner the road is still very narrow where there is room enough for two cars to pass but that’s about it. The speed limit is 45.

So there you have John (my dad) riding towards Rockville corner feeling pretty good about this whole retirement thing because he’s able to get out and do these rides that are making him feel like a million bucks. A few hundred yards up the road is a car approaching in the oncoming lane at about 45 mph. A few hundred yards behind he hears a car approaching in his lane at what seems to be a reasonable speed. Just then he hears that same car (a large SUV) accelerate. Heavily. Instead of slowing down and waiting for the oncoming car in the other lane to pass then safely veer around the cyclist (like in the drivers handbook) the SUV decides it’s going to be a game of thread the needle between the cyclist and the other car.

So now what? Both cars are going to pass him at the same time but now he’s got this large size SUV bearing down from behind like a charging bull probably now traveling at 65 or 70 mph.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that on account of the area being agricultural ‘n’ all -- there is also a ditch on either side of the road about two feet deep and very little dirt shoulder.

Behind we have the charging SUV while up ahead is the car that is making no adjustments because maybe they are talking on a cell phone or whatever.

In the balance is 65-year-old newly retired John Kelly Sr. who served in the Marines where he repaired, maintained and taxied fighter aircraft; went on to a career in construction where his daily routine was being around and operating damn near every piece of earthmoving equipment there was/is (you know -- the ones that have tires or tracks bigger than your house).
He is also a loving husband to Jean (my mom), father of three (one of which is me) and a grandfather of 10 (soon to be 11).

Within seconds the 4000+pound SUV blew between dad and the other car as if it was it’s job or god given right to make sure everybody knew that it was not giving up one inch of that road for anyone. Especially not for some 220 pound guy on some 20 pound bike. No way!

I’m not down on SUV’s or everyone that drives them. Fact is my mom owns a Ford Expedition. It’s a great car for her out there in the country where her and dad live and she operates it quite well. Now that I’m kind of out in the boondocks with a little one on the way that type of vehicle is looking more and more attractive to me as well.

Basically my dad’s a guy who’s had to think a lot about being real careful every day of his career -- because if he didn’t a lot could go wrong.

So, now at that moment sharing the road with dad is some knucklehead in an SUV playing god with my dad’s life. Whether that person knew it or not that’s what he or she was doing. What are the consequences if something went wrong that day?

Earlier this year I lost my dear friend Gerry Pellegrino. A kid with a suspended drivers license struck Gerry (with his car) as he was crossing to the other side of the road on his bicycle. The accident didn’t actually kill him. He sustained a broken hip, dislocated shoulder and a pretty good whack on the head that day only to die two months later of pulmonary complications from that accident.

Gerry was 76 going on 35. I believe he would’ve lived to see 95 had that not happened. I miss him.

A couple months ago a young man on his way to work was struck or ran over by a semi truck or similar judging by the tire marks left on his body and bicycle police said. He lay there in the number 2 lane of the road as people navigated their vehicles around him long enough for two people to call 911 on their cell phones. No one ever stopped to help. There were no witnesses.

This mans name was Jesse Romero. He was 46 years old and was loved by his family and friends who I’m sure still mourn his death.

About a year ago our own Stella Carey and her boyfriend Aaron were damn near run over in Santa Cruz by a woman in an SUV as she pulled away (or rather sped away) from the curb after picking up her kids at daycare. “She was talking on her cell phone and wasn’t even looking”, Stella recalled. After having words the woman lunged her car forward in an angry fit and sped away. Stella’s hand was somehow caught or snagged on the mirror or window and sustained a sprained wrist.

The police came. They sided with the lady on the cell phone in the SUV saying, “she was afraid for her safety”.

Ever since that critical mass that got out of hand a year or so ago it seems that motorists have become downright malicious towards people on bicycles. Ask anyone who rides and they will tell you it’s gotten worse in the past couple of years.

What most of these angry retaliates probably don’t know is that my dad doesn’t do critical mass. Neither did Gerry. Nor did Jesse. So why? Are they trying to teach all those who ride a lesson? If so what is that lesson? Someone please tell me.

If you are one of the many who are stuck in traffic when there is a critical mass and have had your car pounded on by some moron on a bike for no reason at all -- you need to realize something; that’s not me. That’s not my Dad. That’s not Gerry. That’s not Jesse. That’s not Stella or Aaron. It’s none of us. In fact it’s not a fraction of the people who ride a bike in this country.

I once participated in a critical mass in July of 95. I’m sure most of you remember that time. It was right after the discovery of the Hale-Bopp Comet. Although there was a general feeling of elation while I rode along with all the other couple thousand or so people on bikes I couldn’t help but notice traces of unnecessary taunting, violent and vandalous behavior from a few random cyclists.

I realized right then and there that all that needed to happen was for one of those very few dummies to push one of these motorists (who by the way are in the middle of their Friday night commute home) over the edge or startle them so badly that they lose control of their vehicle. The scenario could then continue, as the car becomes a killing machine and a bunch of us so called innocent bystanders get to be the aftermath. It only takes one cigarette butt carelessly flung out the window of a car to burn an entire forest to the ground -- and for me there were way to many careless butts that evening. Needless to say that was the last critical mass I would attend.

As it turns out the very next month (August 95), was that first famous critical mass gone wrong. Or as some called it, “critical mess”.

It’s now the year 2003 and I can’t believe how much animosity there is out on the road these days. It seems there are so many careless people everywhere, especially here in California where there are more people than in all of Canada.

Why does this problem exist and who started it? Seems that everyone wants someone to blame these days. Was it those damn bikers at that damn critical mass who kicked the damn mirror off my damn car? Was it that damn yuppie talking on that damn cell phone driving that damn SUV????? The list goes on.

After watching the problem escalate for many years I have come to the simple conclusion that many motorists and cyclists (at least 50%) do not understand basic rules of the road. I believe this is where a lot of the problem starts. Many drivers don’t understand who has the right of way when it comes to basic vehicle to vehicle interaction let alone vehicle to bicycle interaction. The flipside is many cyclists are just the same. The outcome is chaos where ignorance begets ignorance. It tends to snowball into a big mess because each party thinks one is out to offend the other when in reality they are usually both in the wrong to begin with.

So, how do we turn this growing problem around?

Most of the altercations I have witnessed could have been avoided if the people involved were on the same page when it came to the basic rules of the road. Guess where you find those rules?

Can we say, “Drivers Handbook”? Did you know that anyone could pick one up at any DMV for free?

The first and foremost thing they talk about in the handbook is that everyone on the road should “observe common courtesy at all times”. Now there’s a thought. If everyone observed that one rule how many problems on the road today would cease to exist?

One of the wisest sayings I ever heard was, “you don’t know what you don’t know”. I keep a handbook in the glove box and one at home for when I have a question about something I’m not sure of.

Operating a motor vehicle on the road is a privilege not a right. A cyclist has many of the same responsibilities as an automobile when ridden on public roadways. These are two topics found in the drivers-handbook. Enough said?

I personally think that California needs to toughen its testing process and the way it hands out driver’s licenses to just anybody. There are already too many clueless drivers out there as it is.

The few of you cyclists that think it’s okay to be anarchists need to wise up and realize it’s not okay before you completely ruin it for everyone. You give the whole cycling community (that means anybody who rides a bike) a bad wrap when you so disrespectfully carry on the way you do.

I guess my thing here is that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

I enjoy riding or driving anything that has wheels; motorized or not. So before anyone on the road wishes to classify me as a damn cyclist, damn car, damn motorcycle or whatever, just remember that you don’t know the first thing about me. Also remember that what you need to know is how to operate your car, bicycle, SUV, motorcycle, semi, school bus or taxicab with great care and common courtesy while adhering to the basic rules of the road.

Maybe then we can all share the road in a peaceful manner and get to where we’re going safely. And, I won’t have to worry so much about my dad.



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Photos: Roman Roth