Bicycle safety topic back in focus in Northeast Mississippi

TUPELO – Two fatal accidents involving bicycle riders and vehicles this year in Northeast Mississippi have heightened discussion on how motorists and cyclists can co-exist safely on the roadways.
When 51-year-old cyclist Esther Hagemen of the Netherlands was hit and killed by an SUV while riding her bike on the Natchez Trace Parkway in April, discussion started about how, when and where to ride bicycles.
With the Aug. 13 death of Tupelo High School senior and cyclist John Paul Frerer, those questions have surfaced again. Frerer, 18, was killed while cycling from Tupelo to Oxford.
Mississippi Highway Patrolman Leslie White said Frerer was struck by a 1993 Chevrolet pickup truck around 8 that morning. Both Frerer and the driver of the truck were headed west on Highway 6 near the Thaxton community in Pontotoc County.
That accident has caused great concern among riders like Tupelo Bike Club member Candy Wheeler.
“Cyclists in Tupelo are very concerned about safety on the roads,” said Wheeler. “There are just so many distractions for motorists and so many more cars on the roads that it’s a dangerous place for us and I have to say that it is a little scary to be out there right now.”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that 701 cyclists were killed by motorists in 2007. In 2008, that number rose to 716.
Libby Thomas, research associate with the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center, said accidents will continue to occur at a frequent rate until cyclists and motorists know what everyone’s roles are on the roads.
“Everyone needs to know where they are supposed to be and what rules they are supposed to be riding and driving under,” said Thomas.
“For cyclists, it’s important to ride with the flow of traffic. You have to ride a bike as if you were driving a car. Same rules apply. And for motorists, know where the riders are and what to do when you encounter them. Treat cyclists like cars. If you are going to pass them, pass them just like a car and go all the way into the other lane until you get around the rider.”
Thomas said many accidents occur when vehicles try to pass cyclists in the same lane.
Both Frerer and Hagemen were riding with the flow of the traffic, as the law stipulates, when they were hit.
Tupelo Police Maj. Jackie Clayton said that inside the city, motorists and cyclists need to know the laws of the road because the lack of bike lanes can cause confusion and result in accidents. Without bike lanes, he said, cyclists have to maneuver around the city next to bigger, faster vehicles.
Tupelo’s new city planner, Renee Autumn Ray, said she plans to lead an effort to develop interconnected biking and walking lanes throughout the city.
“We are looking to see where we can put bike lanes on existing streets,” said Ray. “We are also going to be researching where we can put different bike and walking routes in other areas throughout the city. The good thing about Tupelo is that it owns most of its streets so we don’t have to go through the state to get things done and that will help things move along faster.”
But building biking lanes is only one part of the solution, according to Karen Mogridge, executive director of Bike Walk Mississippi.
Bike Walk Mississippi is a bicycle and pedestrian advocacy group dedicated to the development, enhancement and promotion of alternative forms of transportation and recreation throughout the state.
The group will meet with the Senate Transportation Committee in Jackson this week to discuss proposed legislation for a 3-foot law they hope will be introduced during the 2010 legislative session.
“Our main goal is to increase education and awareness for bicyclists in Mississippi,” said Mogridge. “There is a trend growing around the country where states are passing a 3-foot law to protect cyclists. We hope to talk to the transportation committee to try to agree on some terms so we can get things rolling for next year’s session.”
The 3-foot law requires that drivers give cyclists at least three feet while passing them from the side. Fourteen states have passed the 3-foot law with Louisiana being the latest. Arkansas, Tennessee and Florida also have passed 3-foot laws.
Mogridge said she’d also like to see legislation passed dealing with people harassing bike riders.
No matter what the solution is, Wheeler said public education is the only way bike versus vehicle accidents can be decreased.
“We have to educate the public, both cyclists and motorists, about sharing the roads,” said Wheeler. “Everyone wants to be safe no matter what they are driving in or riding on.”

Contact Danza Johnson at (662) 678-1583 or danza.johnson@djournal.com

The parents of John Paul Frerer have set up a fund in his name to promote bike safety in Mississippi. For information on how to contribute to the John Paul Frerer fund, call Barry Walker at (662) 841-0629.

Danza Johnson/NEMS Daily Journal