Cyclist Jerry Bengtson knows the feeling of road rash after a close call on Boulder County’s roads.
Last month, as he was riding his bike east on Colo. 66, a motorist turned off 75th Street, traveling behind Bengtson. The driver was attempting to merge into a steady stream of traffic. While doing so, he was traveling on the shoulder — where Begtson was riding — and quickly gaining on the bike.
“When he was very close to me, and I realized he was just going to run me over, I ended up bailing off the road,” Bengtson said. “When I went off there, my wheel dug into the soft dirt and threw me left. I went down on the pavement. His wheels missed my head by inches.”
The harrowing incident left Bengtson with more than bruised ribs and scrapes. He wants motorists to better understand what cyclists go through during their commutes and educate themselves on traffic laws.
“99.9% of the drivers are great. It’s a small percentage that gets upset. You get people who get impatient by being delayed by a few seconds,” he said. “And, we have these signs about sharing the road. Unfortunately a lot of drivers interpret the sign to say: ‘Get the hell out of my way.’”
Motorists, who say they’ve had to conduct their own evasive maneuvers to avoid colliding with cyclists, have expressed similar concerns gleaned from behind their steering wheels.
Rebecca Cannell, who lives on Longmont’s south side and occasionally has to tow a horse trailer, has seen tensions between cyclists and motorists boil over into instances of road rage — a situation she said has discouraged her from cycling herself. Cannell said while many cyclists follow the rules, some don’t, putting themselves and others in danger.
“The biggest complaint that I have, as well as the many people that live out here, are there are several people who refuse to ride single file,” Cannell said. “They will take up an entire lane. and they won’t move so that you can pass safely. They don’t often use hand signals. They won’t follow cycling rules at intersections and stop signs. It creates a really dangerous situation for other cyclists and motorists.”
She said she’s seen these examples on Nelson, Hygiene and St. Vrain roads and North 75th Street in particular.
“It’s gotten worse over the years. Maybe because of the pandemic more people have picked up cycling,” Cannell said. “We certainly don’t have a problem with cyclists out here riding. It’s beautiful. I get why people want to ride out here.”
From 2009 to 2018, there were 54,121 motor vehicle crashes across Boulder County. Of those, 172 crashes involved bicycles. Ten of those crashes were fatal, 44 resulted in major injury such as broken bones and major trauma, and 118 were minor injury crashes, according to Boulder County Sheriff Sgt. Clay Leak, who is in charge of the county traffic unit.
Motorists were listed as at fault in approximately 38 of those crashes, with cyclists cited as at fault in roughly 14 crashes.
Longmont police Sgt. Eric Lewis said there were 24 bicycle and vehicle crashes in Longmont last year. Of those, he said, 15, or 63%, involved the bicyclist as the cause of the crash. In two of those crashes, cyclists died. In one of the fatal crashes the driver was charged, while in the other incident the bicyclist was the cause, Lewis said.
While there’s a shared responsibility for cyclists and motorists to follow laws, road safety advocates said there isn’t always a shared understanding for the rules and how they apply to cycling or driving.
Education is key
Lauren Greenfield, Longmont traffic safety coordinator, believes a little education would go a long way in improving the relationship between bikes and cars on the road. Greenfield teaches free Bicycle Friendly Driver Classes to make people safer, no matter their mode of transportation. At the root of the issue, Greenfield said, is confusion about road rules.
“For vehicular drivers it’s, ‘Why are the bikes where they are?’” Greenfield said. “And, ‘How do I get around them safely?’ For the bikes, ‘Where is the safest place for me to be when I’m sharing a road with a car? How do I get through an intersection safely?’”
Greenfield recapped a few basic rules people should understand, whether traversing Longmont’s roughly 40 miles of on-street bike lanes or driving the city’s 409 miles of roads. Cyclists should travel with traffic, not against it, and stay as far to the right as is safe or practical. It is legal for cyclists to ride in the vehicular lane of traffic if there is an obstruction to the bike lane, such as broken glass, roadkill or potholes. But, that doesn’t mean suddenly leaping into the road. Greenfield said cyclists should take care to check that there isn’t traffic behind them before hopping into the lane.
Drivers should be cautious when passing cyclists, allowing at least 3 feet between the widest point of their vehicle and the widest point of the bicyclist. Motorists can cross the double yellow line to provide more room for cyclists, so long as it is safe to do so and there is no opposing traffic, a blind hill or curve. If there is a bike lane that runs along the road and there is parking, motorists should check to make sure there are no cyclists approaching.
Additionally, Colorado bike law says that cyclists can ride two abreast so long as it doesn’t impede traffic.
“If everyone can be predictable and follow the laws of the road, it makes it easier and safer for everyone,” Greenfield said.
Leak said the most common types of bicycle and vehicle crashes are rear-end and T-bone crashes.
In an email, Leak also advised: “Please also note that the latest trend, especially in the cycling community, is to steer away from the ‘share the road’ language and to put more emphasis on the 3-foot rule, give cyclists space, be patient (e.g., when looking to overtake a cyclist), and be extra-vigilant/alert/aware of cyclists.”
Leak wrote that 30% of county cyclist crashes between 2009 to 2018 occurred on North Foothills Highway, also known as U.S. 36, between Jay Road and Colo. 66, with 67% of crashes occurring on county roads, where one roadway has the right-of-way and other intersecting roads have a stop-sign intersection, such as at North 63rd Street at Oxford Road.
Residents share stories, ideas for solutions
Bengtson said the motorist who reportedly nearly struck him did stop to check on him after Bengtson fell, but drove away while Bengtson was still dazed and injured, after telling him, “It wasn’t my fault.” Bengtson said while he considers this situation a rare incident, it’s not the first time something like that has occurred.
Bengtson said he has seen drivers commit “punishment passes,” where they got around him in one lane, but then jerk their vehicle back in front of him, or slow down to ride alongside next to him and yell at him for riding in a vehicular lane.
Education, he said, would help improve the relationship between cars and cyclists.
“I’ve had people ask me, ‘Well, why does a bicyclist do this?’ And I explain it, and then they understand,” he said.
Cannell wants to see more signage that advises cyclists on what they should be doing.
“I think some cyclists need to be reminded that they need to be riding to follow the rules as well,” Cannell said. “If they don’t, they create a dangerous situation for those of us out here.”
Boulder resident Kate Lacroix also thinks signage geared toward cyclists and motorists — as well as a safety awareness campaign — would improve conditions on the road.
“We’re (Boulder) a bike town, and everyone needs to have a heads-up,” Lacroix said. “That’s not just for cars to have a heads-up for bikes,; it’s for bikes to also remember that their vulnerability, as compared to a car, doesn’t alleviate their responsibility to follow the rules. The ‘share the road’ concept is really around being cognizant for all moving vehicles and moving modes of transport to have a heads-up.”
Allowing everyone to give themselves more time to get where they’re going and exercising some compassion, especially as people reemerge from COVID-19 restrictions, can also benefit everyone, she said.
“I think it’s great to have a spirit of openness and generosity,” she added. “If you see someone huffing it on a bike and they’re trying to make a light, you’re not going to get on their heels and be cruel.”
For Peter Schow, creating a more cohesive network of bike pathways that can get cyclists where they want to go would be beneficial to bikers and motorists alike. The Colo. 119 revamp, which plans to create a corridor-wide bike path, is an example of solutions to this transportation gap.
“We like bike paths, and we will use more of them as they become available,” Schow said.
Schow is part of the St. Vrain Chain Gang, a club of cyclists whom ride the road regularly during the summers, from climbing winding roads on a run to Estes Park to breezing along the St. Vrain Greenway.
Schow, of Longmont, is one of the leaders of the club, which has about 60 core members who participate in roughly 80 rides a year. Typical group rides see about 20 to 25 cyclists participating.
“The Colorado 3-foot law is very important to us,” Schow said. “You have to understand the cyclist’s perspective: We’re riding on the side of the road. We have hazards we have to watch out for, whether it’s potholes, construction debris, broken glass — all these things could slightly disrupt our ride. The 3-foot rule gives us space to navigate around some of these obstacles that we encounter all the time.”
Schow believes motorists might not be aware they can cross the double yellow line on a single lane road to give cyclists more space, so long as there is no danger in doing so.
“We will get people that don’t want to cross the line, and they will hug us, making people uncomfortable,” he said. “Not everybody is familiar with the center line rule yet.”
Knowing the roads they will be traveling is an important part of every trip for the St. Vrain Chain Gang, which is largely made up of experienced cyclists.
“We know when we need to ride single file, and we have elaborate signaling (including) a car back signal that tells us to get in single file,” Schow said. “I do understand the frustration (from drivers). We see the big groups out there as well. They will take up a whole lane, which we never do and don’t encourage.”
If there’s one thing Schow wishes motorists would better understand about avid cyclists it’s there’s no us versus them.
“Of course, all of us own cars and drive cars,” Schow said. “We’re your neighbors. We’re mothers, fathers, sisters. We’re part of the community, and we’re just trying to enjoy recreational cycling.”
Resources for cyclists and motorists
Map of Longmont bike routes:
Find free local classes on road safety: