Thursday, July 11, 2013

Drivers to Exercise Due Care When Approaching Bicycle

New Hampshire Revised Statutes 265:143-a: Drivers to Exercise Due Care When Approaching Bicycle. – Every driver of a vehicle, when approaching a bicyclist, shall insure the safety and protection of the bicyclist and shall exercise due care by leaving a reasonable and prudent distance between the vehicle and the bicycle. The distance shall be presumed to be reasonable and prudent if it is at least 3 feet when the vehicle is traveling at 30 miles per hour or less, with one additional foot of clearance required for every 10 miles per hour above 30 miles per hour. [1]

Last week I took July 3 off since I didn't have much going on at work. Isaac and I decided to meet Dave, who had to work, for a ride around lunch time. Dave planned out a sadistic route full of little punchy surprises I hadn't seen before, like Ball Hill which was a short little ball buster.

We hit all the bigger climbs, like the back side of Abbott Hill, Pead Hill and Purgatory Hill. Lots of intensity distributed throughout. A great ride that left me in shambles. From Amherst, we took a somewhat direct way back that had us descend Peaslee Rd, which merges into Naticook Rd. Peaslee/Naticook drops nearly 200ft in about a mile or so. The road is narrow, zero shoulder, curvy, and it is easy to match or exceed the 30mph speed limit coasting on a bicycle on this descent. It is unsafe to hug the edge of the road, and due to blind turns, it is unsafe for a car to pass on this brief section of road. It is double-yellow lined. Here is one of the blind turns from Google Maps.

Near where Peaslee merges into Naticook, I became aware of an SUV following very closely. The three of us were riding single-file, occupying the right half of the traffice lane, but traveling at least the speed limit (GPS track proves it). This driver apparently was in much too big of a hurry to wait another few seconds until we leveled out at the bottom and could safely move closer to the edge of the road. He passed us around a blind corner.

That in itself was risky, but would not have been all that bad if he left us a little room. No. He not only came freakishly close, he was sure to "show" us where we belonged - in the trees. He got along side us, matched our speed, then proceeded to pinch Dave and I off to the edge of the road until we ran out of pavement. Look at the photo above. How close are the trees to the edge of the road here? Remember, we were going 30+ mph. You can easily be killed hitting a mature oak at this speed.

We slammed on our brakes and spit out behind the guy. I put my hand up, like WTF?! But he wasn't done yet. Oh no. He then LOCKED UP his brakes, leaving skid marks. All three of us nearly piled through the rear window of his SUV. We went into crazy skids trying to avoid him.

He was then stopped in the road and probably saying something at that point. We went around him. Big mistake. The driver then PEELS OUT, aiming right for us. Just before impacting me, he locks up his brakes again. This time, the door flies open and he comes running at us with clenched fists screaming profanities. Dave and I stopped. I was the closest. His eyes and veins in his neck were bulging out.  I thought surely he was going to take my head off while I was still on my bike. He was a big guy.

The driver proceeded to scream no more than 12" from my face in a very threatening manner, calling us names, every-other word an expletive. I couldn't get a word in edgewise but asked why he tried to kill us. Obviously, I was pretty pissed too. Who wouldn't be, after someone almost took you out of the gene pool deliberately?  Some of the things the driver said, with expletives removed, were:  we were blocking the whole road, we had no right to be in the traffic lane, we had to stay on edge of road, we were obstructing traffic.

I countered with: we are traffic, we were going over the speed limit, bicycles have a right in all 50 states to use traffic lanes as they deem safest, he is required by law to pass with at least 3ft of room and if can't immediately do that, wait until it is safe to do so.

This enraged the driver even more. He must have thought I was lying or making it up. He then went on to say: we were "only" going 25mph, that cycling in Merrimack is a huge problem and there have been neighborhood meetings to discuss how to solve it, that the road we were on was a major road [it's a residential street!], go find a back road somewhere, and when Dave said he tried to run us off, the driver said "if I tried I would have put you in the trees", indicating intent of coming very close to putting us into the trees.

I didn't see where this was going to end. I thought a brawl was imminent, as the driver was not cooling down at all. This was going on for about two minutes at this point, he was 75ft from his SUV stopped literally in the middle of the road, and there was a growing line of cars blocked behind him. Who was obstructing traffic here?

We would have cost him all of what, 5 seconds maybe, because he had to go only 30-35mph on this piece of road instead of 45mph?  He very nearly killed us for this. He executed calculated maneuvers that almost put us into the trees at 30+ mph. Here's another little gem I dug up. Apparently, very near where this altercation occurred, the Merrimack police often set up a speed trap to enforce the 30mph speed limit.

During the altercation, a woman coming up the hill stopped and asked if everything was alright. I said no, call 911, this man is threatening us. The driver screamed "Yes, call the police, these guys are obstructing traffic!" Keep in mind the growing queue of vehicles behind his stopped SUV. Apparently this older woman sensed the hostility and wanted nothing to do with it and sped off.

Here's where this sad tale gets interesting. Dave and I reached the conclusion that this guy is just full of hate and rage and there was no sense in reasoning with him. Just like some people are racists or homophobes, this guy hated cyclists because they can cost him a few seconds getting back to work and they wear funny clothes. After ranting for another minute or so, he stormed back to his car screaming this parting gift: "You guys think you're Lance Armstrong in your FUCKING FAIRY PANTS!" Yeah, that got to the bottom of it.

We did not have to call the police. A neighbor in their backyard, who could not see us through the trees, heard everything - the squealing tires, the swearing, the heated exchange. Here's the kicker. They recognized the guy's voice. I don't want to give away who this person was or even who the driver was, but the neighbor knew this guy was trouble and had a "reputation." Let's just say this is not the first time he's gone off on somebody. The neighbor dialed 911.

After the driver left, we started to roll but were met by this family, checking to see if we were alright. They were still on the phone with 911 and told us the police would be there in a couple minutes. Before the police got there, we knew who the driver was, where he lived, where he worked, even what he did in his spare time.

A Merrimack officer was there promptly to take a report.  He took notes and inspected the skid marks on Naticook.  His inclination was to charge the guy for disorderly conduct. To do that, he would need sworn statements from all of us, and we'd have to appear in court to testify. We did not have unanimous agreement to go that route, unfortunately. Instead, the officer offered an alternative approach. When he talked with the driver, if the driver was still hostile and combative, he would charge him then. If the driver was able to stay calm and have a productive discussion, the officer would leave things at that. We all agreed to that approach.

We brought up the comment about "the huge problem of cycling in Merrimack" and the meetings to discuss it. The officer said that's the first he'd ever heard of that. We saw numerous cyclists ride by in both directions while talking with the officer, all types, from single women to serious old dudes to teenagers on BMX style bikes.  There didn't seem to be any conflict going on. In fact, the officer commented that he passed us just a few minutes before this incident with no difficulty at all. We ride single file and hug the edge of the road when it is safe to do so, which is most of the time. One thing that occurred to me later is that there was a triathlon in town the weekend before. Maybe that disrupted things and had this driver primed.

Interestingly, the officer had a mountain bike on the back of his cruiser. We told him about the "fairy pants" comment. He pulled up his uniform shorts to show us he had cycling spandex on underneath. He joked that maybe he should show up at this guy's door in fairy pants! What a hoot! Besides the neighbor that called 911, we felt we had another ally with the law on our side.

The officer did speak with the driver on July 4. I received a brief voice message from the officer that the driver obviously had his side of the story, but he felt they had a productive dialog. I have not been able to speak directly with the officer for more feedback, partly because I work in a closed area at work with no phones. Phone tag, ugh...

So that's where things are at. Hopefully the driver is at least a little more educated. That won't fix hate or temper issues. A report has been filed. The local cycling community will be watching this guy. The next day in Boulder, Colorado, an almost identical road rage scenario played out between a motorist and group of cyclists. That incident ended with much more catastrophic results. There can be all the laws in the world protecting cyclists on the books. Some drivers believe they have exclusive rights to the roads regardless. What is scary, is some of these drivers have complete disregard of human life in exercising their perceptions. They believe that if they maimed or killed somebody, they'd be completely vindicated because the cyclist shouldn't have been on the road in the first place. All too often, we read stories were drivers are not charged for killing cyclists. How many of these fatalities result from deliberate driver behavior?


Eiric said...

Stand you ground rule shot the dirt bag. Really glad nobody got hurt the hate towards cycling is amazing.

doug said...

imagine if cyclists went off on drivers like this, glad you are ok

Hill Junkie said...

Eiric - I would like to have seen the outcome if Gauthier was with us. The driver would have either ran back to his SUV and locked the doors or would have left the scene on a stretcher. He wouldn't be packing either.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe you did not do the right thing and all swear out statements. This guy is clearly dangerous.

Geeze, I never thought to carry my gun while riding a bike...I might have to re-think that.

Nancy said...

do you know if this law was adopted in MA and VT?

Hill Junkie said...

According to this website, MA and VT have not yet passed 3-foot laws.

Anonymous said...

S and w 40 cal next time.

The Warrenator said...

Thursday morning on our 5:30AM ride we were passed on Main St in Dunstable by a GMC Acadia with NH plates. 10 guys in a paceline, 1 floating back, 20+mph. With an open lane in the other direction this guy laid a 30 second+ horn on us as he passed at full speed. Never even considered slowing up I'm sure. What the hurry was is beyond me. Glad you weren't injured guys, not sure this guy will get the message though.

Mr. Quindazzi said...

Pinching you off the road, then charging at you with his vehicle is assault with a deadly weapon and reckless driving, not disorderly conduct.
Sounds like the driver completely got away with it.
Glad you weren't hurt.

Hill Junkie said...

Wreckless driving, sure, but some kind of contact has to happen for it to be assault. The driver was careful enough to not verbally threaten us with harm.

Peter Minde said...

5-foot law was proposed here in NJ a couple years ago, but legislators from urbanized counties blocked it. Guys like that don't get it, and they never will. Glad you are OK.

Mr. Quindazzi said...

Not a lawyer, nor do i play one on TV, but I did find this:

What he did seems to fit "Recklessly placing another in danger" which is punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2000 fine.

I know it would be a pain in the ass to pursue this, but you should consider it. A "stern talking to" by the cop will have 0 effect on a guy like this. I think that's pretty clear from the "driver had his side to tell."

Just think if it was a less experienced cyclist he attacked- someone who may have hit that oak tree. What if it was your wife?

Again, I'm glad everyone is okay.

Greg Katz said...

Disorderly conduct? That's assault with a dangerous weapon in MA. I would assume the same thing in NH. With witnesses as you describe there should have been no problem with at least requesting a hearing with a court magistrate.

Greg Katz said...

Looks like NH doesn't use the common law version of assault which does not require a battery. NH is different and requires contact. The actions here are probably covered in motor vehicle laws.