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‘Life or Death on the Road’ — Group Looks to Boost Safety for Maine Cyclists

Patty Wight
Lauri Boxer Macomber commutes to work in Portland recently.

This is the time of year when more people are out walking and biking on Maine’s roads. That means there are more interactions between what are called “vulnerable users” and motor vehicles.

Already this year there have been seven pedestrian fatalities and one bike fatality. To promote better safety, the Bicycle Coalition of Maine has teamed up with police departments to boost enforcement of traffic laws.

For more than a decade, Lauri Boxer Macomber has traveled to her job in downtown Portland by bike. It’s a 3-mile trip that starts on a quiet residential street and quickly moves to busy roads.

She says she loves to bike because it kicks her senses into high gear, a heightened awareness that’s also a necessity to stay safe. Barely two minutes into her ride, she spots a car that cuts in front of a bicyclist riding ahead of her.

“There was what we would call an improper right turn in front of a bicyclist. That car should have waited until the bicyclist passed to make its right-hand turn,” she says.

As Macomber continues, she sometimes moves from the far right side of the road into the center to avoid potholes and other obstacles such as parked cars. This kind of move sometimes elicits annoyed yells from motorists, but it is allowed under the law when it’s the safest option.

Macomber is well-versed in the rules of the road, not only as a bike commuter but in her job as an attorney. She represents bicyclists and pedestrians in personal injury cases. Sometimes, her work makes her think twice about her choice in travel.

“There have been some very horrific crashes that are 100 percent the fault of the motor vehicle,” she says. “There are others where there’s some negligence on the part of the bicyclist. But when I see those cases where the bicyclist was following rules of road — well lit, very visible, doing everything one could possibly do — and is still hit, that is when I say, ‘Huh.’“

There’s a need, says Macomber, for both cyclists and motorists to have a better understanding of traffic laws. And some of the best people to help with that, she says, are the people who enforce those laws.

Officer Peter Corbett works for the South Portland Police Department. He’s getting ready for his patrol during the weekday morning commute.

“We’re looking for distracted drivers, texting, that kind of stuff, and cyclists, making sure they’re obeying laws,” he says.

South Portland is one of about half a dozen police departments in Cumberland County that have partnered with the Bicycle Coalition of Maine. The group recently issued a one-sheet reference guide to every police and sheriff’s department in the state that outlines motorist and bicycle laws.

The goal is to make enforcing these laws easier, and ultimately increase safety.

“There are so many laws — criminal laws, motor vehicle laws,” Corbett says. “You do want to have those cheat sheets where you can easily look it up.”

Last year in Maine, nearly 200 cyclists were in crashes involving motor vehicles. Pedestrians were involved in nearly 300 crashes, including 19 deaths. That’s the highest number in about two decades.

So far, this year’s numbers are at a similar pace.

The Bicycle Coalition’s Jim Tasse says a lot of the Coalition’s education efforts on safety take place in school classrooms. To reach a broader audience, it made sense to partner with law enforcement.

“They are able to provide instantaneous educational interventions. And they can put some teeth behind those educational interventions,” he says.

Tasse says some of the most common and dangerous mistakes bicyclists make are running stop signs and stop lights, and riding against traffic. The most common mistakes drivers make, he says, are going too fast or not being patient.

“The behavior of motorists — that’s the thing that can really make the difference between life or death on the road,” he says.

At a stop light, Corbett spots a female driver texting in her car.

“A lot of people don’t understand that they can’t even do it at a stoplight. And the common explanation I give them is, if you’re driving under influence, you’re still under the influence at a traffic light,” he says.

Corbett pulls her over and gives her a warning, instead of a ticket that would have set her back $300.

“We could probably write a ticket on every contact, but I don’t think that’s necessarily our purpose always,” he says.

Most of it is teaching people, Corbett says. But no matter how well you know traffic laws or not, he says the most important thing to do, as a pedestrian, cyclist or driver is to simply pay attention.