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Gina's Story and "The 3 Foot Law"

written by Thu Tran, M.D.,F.A.C.O.G.
on Tuesday, 1st October ,2013

The picture above was taken shortly after my first triathlon two years ago in Washington D.C. Dr. Diane Laurin and I participated in this fun event where we were to swim a mile in the Potomac river, ride 25 miles and run 6.2 miles. The week before the triathlon took place, hurricane Irene arrived with full force, causing some flooding and bringing a lot of debris including dead animals and tree branches into the river.  The swim was cancelled at the last minute and we only got to bike and run.  I was somewhat disappointed, since I spent several months learning to swim a mile in the river without the fear of drowning.  I learned to take off my wetsuit in less than a minute and put on my "clipped on" biking shoes for another minute.  I learned to get used to jump off the bike, take off the clipped on shoes, put on my running shoes and quickly start running the 6.2 miles. It might sound daunting, but it was such a fun experience! 

This coming Saturday, my husband David and I will participate in the Seagull Century ride, a hundred mile bike ride through Maryland Eastern Shore to raise fund for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.  Last year, during the same event, between the 30 to 40 mile distance, an aggressive driver did not want to yield to David as we were making a left turn at an intersection.  He almost knocked David off the bike.  The driver sped away, as I was angry and scared for David.

Two days ago, I got an email forwarded from my friend Dr. Libby Adams.  Her colleague’s niece Gina, who works for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA), a local bicycle advocacy group, was training for the Climate Ride, another ride for charity.  Below is Gina’s account of her dramatic experience in Chesapeake Beach.  Ironically, it’s the town where we have a townhouse on the Chesapeake bay.  David and I have been riding there many weekends.  This event could have happened to us!

Ironically, after learning about the “3 foot Law” from Gina’s story, I opened the Sunday Washington Post Metro section and found, on its front page, story of cyclists honoring Trish Cunningham, a popular youth and high school coach in South Annapolis who was killed on August 21 by a driver who tried to pass her.  As this driver passed and swerved back into the right lane, he slammed into Ms Cunningham in such violent way that her cell phone shattered inside its hard-shell case.  She was just 50 year old.

Fall is a season of many triathlons and biking events.  I think it’s important that we all read Gina’s account of her dramatic event on the road. 

Below is Gina’s story:

 “ I have only about 20 days left before I set off on my bike from New York City to ride home to DC in five days. I'm training hard, hopeful that I'll be able to finish without calling in the sag wagons!  

On my training ride Saturday, my dedication to this ride and our cause was brought home in a way that I couldn't have anticipated. While participating in the Bay Country Century, which winds its way through the western shore towns in Calvert and Anne Arundel Counties, the peace of the ride was shattered at about the 45 mile mark: While bicycling through Chesapeake Beach (and having been passed too closely by the same driver seconds before) the cyclist in front of me was hit by his side view mirror as he tried to get in front of her. The road in that stretch is far too narrow for safe passing but this driver didn't care about the safety of the woman riding at speed and keeping up with the vehicular traffic flow as it eased through the intersection. He just couldn't wait to pass her.  

She went down hard and I screamed as I watched her helmeted head hit the pavement, the rear wheel missed running over her head by not even a half inch. In fact, at this point, I closed my eyes because my mind saw her head so close to the wheel that I was sure he would run over it. I dropped my bike in the road, and as I ran to her, I noticed that the driver, who had slowed to see what happened, was now driving away. My first thought was, I have to memorize his tag number, because he's leaving this woman laying in the road! Fortunately, three other bicyclists appeared and surrounded his car.  

She was bloody and shaken, clearly concussed. The police arrived, as did the paramedics. The sheriff's deputies and paramedics chastised us for riding our bikes in the road, and one deputy said he would never let his wife participate in such a "dangerous activity”. My head was spinning and I was getting angrier by the second. When the deputies began to wave the driver away, telling him that they had everything they needed and he could go home, I yelled, ‘are you letting him go? Is he getting a citation?’ The deputies said that they had "nothing to charge him with" I responded with ‘what about violating Maryland's 3 feet for passing law?’ 

It was the mention of the 3 feet for passing law that got their attention. They said they had never heard of it. I knew about it because it was one of WABA's primary Maryland bike initiatives until it finally passed last year. This law states that any vehicle driver must give bicyclists at least 3 feet of space when passing. The deputies then went to their car and looked up the law. Upon finding it they thanked me and said that they responded to dozens of accidents between bicyclists and car drivers, but they "never have anything to charge the driver with."  Now, thanks to WABA's hard work and legislators who care about the safety of cyclists, they do.  

This incident made me more determined than ever to complete the Climate Ride to raise money for WABA. Bicycling is considered a dangerous activity only because there are so many drivers who drive recklessly and dangerously instead of sharing the road with cyclists. Why can't I, and others like me, feel safe enough to ride in the street anywhere? Why do police officers chastise the victim and shrug their shoulders when confronted with a bloody cyclist in the road instead of chastising and ticketing the driver for causing the near death of another human being?

We have so far to go to change attitudes, change roadways, educate law enforcement officers, as well as cyclists, in our communities. But I really don't believe the situation is hopeless. I know bicycling is getting better and safer every day. Even if I gave up on Saturday and was too afraid to complete the ride, I know that the folks at WABA are not ever going to give up. Daily bicycling makes our climate better, our bodies healthier and our communities more prosperous. It's too important a dream to ever abandon. So I'll be out there next week, and the week after too, riding in the road, training for the Climate Ride on September 21! I can't wait!”

I salute Gina’s remarkable spirit in her training for a good cause! 

In the “3 foot law”, as I learned from Gina’s aunt Mary, if the cyclist extends her left arm, she should not be able to touch the passing car’s side mirror.  If she can, the car’s driver is in violation! 

I agree with Gina and her aunt Mary that drivers need to be more patient with cyclists, as cyclists should be more patient with walkers or joggers along the common biking and walking paths.  In 2011, according to the National Safety Council, there were 38,000 bicyclist injuries and 677 deaths.  In the Washington area alone, according to the Washington Post, there have been 51 cyclists killed in the past five years.   Total cost of bicyclist injury and death amounts to more than 4 billion a year! 

Have a safe ride, Gina, and thank you for sharing your story with us.

As for me and David, we plan to take some pictures of the Seagull Century event to share with you.  Of course, this time, I will make sure I am off the bike when I snap the photos of the beautiful Eastern Shore country side.  I learned the hard way last year as I tried to take a picture with my BlackBerry while still riding my bike with only my right hand on the handle.  I did not want to slow down my trip. The near fall taught me quickly how careless  and foolish cyclists can cause their own accidents.  We drivers and cyclists have to share the roads, but all of us should respect the roads.

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