Driver-cyclist tensions on Island remain

Gennie Gebhart
Island Forum

It seems like there has been tension between drivers and cyclists since the invention of the wheel. On Mercer Island, home to what MIHS chemistry teacher and avid cyclist Matt McClung considers to be “one of the best urban rides in Washington,” that tension is more pronounced now than ever.

To move toward making Mercer Island a safer place for both bicycles and cars, the City of Mercer Island and the Mercer Island Police Department announced last May that they would be increasing bicycle safety education and law enforcement for both cyclists and drivers. “We’re always looking for better ways to educate,” said officer Ryan Parr of the MIPD.

The MIPD’s efforts so far have been aimed especially at enforcing the two most commonly observed violations on the Island — bicycles not coming to a full stop at stop signs and cars passing cyclists in unsafe areas — by distributing educational literature about bike safety to violators.

To many bikers on the Island, however, the stepped up education and law enforcement has only meant looking out for police when stopping at the three-way intersection south of Luther Burbank Park and being extra careful when riding past the police station.

“We’ve tried to be reasonable,” said Parr. “We don’t expect people to come to a full stop [at stop signs and lights] and clip out of their pedals and put their foot down. We try to be really consistent across our entire department.”

Many cyclists on Mercer Island, however, have been given citations for that exact offense. According to Parr, both cyclists’ and motorists’ citations in relation to bike safety have increased since they decided to step up enforcement in May, though no specific numbers were available.

Despite the MIPD’s efforts to educate drivers and cyclists, the large majority is still not aware of the simple rules and laws concerning cyclists — most drivers still aren’t aware that cyclists have a right to the road when there is no bike lane and most cyclists still don’t ride single file on the right side of the roadway. Instead of increased knowledge among cyclists and drivers, it seems there’s only more animosity between them.

“I think the enforcement was fair,” said City Council member and cyclist Mike Grady, “but we need more signage around the Island to help bikers and motorists to share the road.”

More signs to inform cyclists and drivers of the rules of the road, wider bike lanes, reduced speed limits and a bike route connecting all the schools on the Island were some of the many improvements suggested by Mercer Island cyclists at a City Council meeting last August to discuss Mercer Island’s pedestrian and bicycle plan.

“Generally, I think [the City Council] is supportive of bikers,” said Grady, “but they have yet to indicate a willingness to move forward with bike lanes on the Island.”

Students at MIHS have concerns as well when it comes to cycling on Mercer Island. Sophomore Ben Hartmann, who rides his bike to school nearly every day from the South end, had concerns about drivers’ safety around bikes. “They should be more careful, especially on East and West Mercer [Way],” he said.

Junior cyclist Jeremy Howell said, “I think it’s ridiculous when [the MIPD] gives a ticket to someone who doesn’t put their foot down at a stop sign.”

“The whole emphasis of the patrol was not based solely on writing more tickets,” said Parr. “The idea behind it was to educate both motorists and cyclists better — motorists to share the road, and bicyclists to help teach them that they are responsible for adhering to the same rules, laws and regulations as cars when they’re on the road.”

They’ve got the right idea about sharing the road, but it’s going to take more cooperation from everyone involved — drivers, cyclists, the MIPD and the City Council included — to reach a lasting solution.

Gennie Gebhart is a junior at Mercer Island High School and writes for The Islander, the school paper.

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