Troopers, police agree that helmets, common sense best bet for bikers to keep out of harm's way

Bicycle safety means being on right side of law

Posted: Sunday, June 03, 2001

Bicycles consist of many breeds. They can be jumping dirt machines, highway speeders or bike-path plodders. Whether on the highway, on a mountain trail or in the street, they have one thing in common: they are traffic.

All the law enforcement agencies, including the Chugach National Forest personnel, deal with bike safety issues.

Dr. Byron McCord, who rides his bicycle year-round, along with Jane Fellman of Safe Kids from Central Peninsula General Hospital, has for years given bike rodeos at the schools where the kids' bikes are checked, go through a safety obstacle course and are able to purchase helmets for a modest fee.

One consistent message from all these agencies and people is that bicycle riders have to be responsible and alert.

Injuries to bicycle riders can be fatal. Last year, two boys riding a bicycle on the wrong side of the Kenai Spur Highway were killed when they were struck by a car.

Kenai Police Officer Gus Sandahl said bikes should always ride on the right side of the road because it is state law and motorists "expect to see you there."

The Alaska Criminal and Traffic Law manual states bicycles should "ride as near to the right side of the road as possible," Soldotna Police Officer Dwane Kant said, quoting the manual. Riders need to be on the shoulder, traveling with the traffic and obeying traffic control devices. This is a citable offense with a fine of $20 plus a $10 surcharge.

The law also calls for a white front headlight visible for 500 feet in front of the bike one-half hour after sunset and one-half hour before sunrise or when weather dictates. A red rear taillight also must be visible 500 feet from the rear of the bike. And the law calls for reflectors visible from the sides of the bike.

Brakes must be "maintained, which can stop in 25 feet at 10 miles per hour on dry, clean, level, pavement." All of these are citable offenses. However, Kant said, he "has never aggressively given tickets to bike riders unless it involved an accident."

The law does not require a helmet, but Kant said there is no good reason to not wear one. He recalled a little Anchorage boy who was run over by his family in his own driveway. The helmet was crushed, but it saved the boy.

The Alaska State Troopers give away several hundred helmets each year, according to Tom DeSpain, the district public relations officer in Anchorage.

"All you have to do is ask," he said.

Jane Fellman's Safe Kids program, in conjunction with McCord's Bike rodeos, sells helmets for $5 and $10.

Riding in town

Certain protocols that are not on the books should be observed. Sandahl said bike riders should use proper signals when turning, and it is common courtesy to pass pedestrians on the left, giving them an audible signal on your approach. It also is illegal to give a ride to someone on a bike unless the bike is designed to carry two people.

The biggest thing the Kenai police encounter is stolen bicycles that were left unattended, said Sandahl.

"Use a locked chain, not a cable," he said.

Sandahl recommends recording the serial number off the bottom of the crankcase (the bottom bracket, where the arms to the pedals come out). If the number is not on the bottom bracket, look for it on the handlebar stem. If the police have the serial number, it is easy to identify the bike.

Lock the serial number in a safe place, Sandahl said.

"You can also register your bike with the Kenai police anytime," he said.

Riding the highway

Riding the highway is fast and free -- if there is an adequate shoulder on the road to keep far to the right. Trooper DeSpain cautioned highway riders to remember they are traffic and must obey the same laws as cars.

If cyclists are traveling under the speed limit and holding up five or more cars, they must pull up and let the traffic go by. Before pulling out into traffic, hand signals must be given.

DeSpain said touring bikes carrying overloaded or unbalanced panniers and other packs are dangerous, as they impair maneuverability. The rules of the road are to ride single file and use hand signals.

"Wearing light colored clothing and a helmet is a good idea," he said.

Riding on trails

and in the mountains

There is still some snow in the high mountains, said Pat O'Leary, recreational planner for the Chugach National Forest. "A few hikers have made it through Resurrection Pass, but Lost Lake might not open until mid-July," O'Leary said.

Riding on muddy trails carves ruts that last though the summer and can sometimes take away all the fun of a day on the bike and bring complaints from users later in the season.

At present, the Forest Service would prefer that cyclists not ride on trails until they dry out.

Mountain bikers can call the Chugach office in Seward for current information.

O'Leary said that often people ask trail conditions and are advised not to go, but are so set on the trip they go anyway.

"Then they come back and say to me they wish they would have taken my advice," he said.

"The trails in the Chugach are not loop trails, but through trails," he said.

So in late July and August the grass grows so tall that it can hit a cyclist in the chest and face, obscuring vision. Some years, due to budget concerns, fallen timber might not be cleared until after the Fourth of July, O'Leary said.

"Hikers have the right of way on the trails. Slow down, call out or ring a bell and stop if necessary," O'Leary said.

The enforcement agencies and experts want riders to know that just as the motorist is expected to obey the laws of the road, the bicycle rider has an equal responsibility, maybe even more so, since riders are more vulnerable.

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