A Lesson in "Sharing the Road"
by Kathryn Purcell
photos by Angelina Bellebuono
For one-year Madison transplant George Palmer, it started out just as so many of the other rides before.
Making his way out of Madison city limits, Palmer reached Bethany Road and, in the middle of his time exercising while admiring the scenery, he was joined by another cyclist, a first-time occurrence for Palmer.
"We were riding along, riding two abreast, when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a pickup truck," Palmer said. "When he gets next to us, he rolls down his passenger-side window and says something to the effect of 'You shouldn't be riding two abreast.'...The guy riding with me, because he was the closest to him, the guy next to me said something to the effect of 'We haven't passed another car for two hours...You can pass us.'"
Apparently, the cyclist's reply didn't set too well with the driver.
According to Palmer, the driver then passed the pair of cyclists while he revved his motor. Continuing in front of them, the driver slowed down significantly. When the driver made his way down the hill, the cyclists behind him all the while, he stopped.
Palmer and his cycling partner saw the driver speaking on his cell phone. As it turns out, he'd phoned the Morgan County Sheriff's Office.
The cyclists, spotting people in a nearby yard, elected to pull off the road and ask to use the phone.
Calling the Sheriff's Office as well, Palmer reached a dispatcher, who informed him that another call had come in regarding cyclists on Bethany Road and that a deputy was being sent out.
When the deputy arrived at the scene, he first talked with the driver before coming to speak with Palmer and his fellow cyclist.
"After the sheriff's deputy came, he (the driver) said we were blocking the road in a series of curves and said we should've been riding single-file and we were keeping him up," Palmer said. "Then, the deputy got our story, and said, 'You guys have every right to ride two abreast. just like a motorcycle does.'"
The deputy continued to say, "I can't believe this guy called us after he almost killed y'all," according to Palmer.
In the meantime, Palmer called his wife, Jennifer, who proceeded to drive from their home in Madison to Bethany Road.
"He called me...and he knew he was in trouble with me," Jennifer said. "He said, 'How's the baby?' I said, 'What's going on?' He said, 'We've had a bit of trouble on the road. The deputy's out here.'...You just don't tell a wife not to come out there when there's been an accident."
After they hung up, Jennifer used the phone number that showed up on her phone to call back and got the Bethany Road address.
"So, I packed up the one-year-old and went out there," Jennifer said. "I got in my car immediately after we hung up."
Jennifer arrived shortly after the incident was broken up, and each of the parties involved, driver and cyclists, went their separate ways.
"When you ride in a particular all the time, you don't want to make enemies," Palmer said. "It's the first time anything like this has happened. When I'm riding by myself, I'm really not a factor for anybody."
According to both Morgan County Sheriff Robert Markley, there haven't been very many cases involving cycling to come through the Morgan County Sheriff's Office in a few years.
"We don't have many incidents of cyclists being hit," Markley said. "Over the years, there's been one fatality and several [cyclists] have been hit."
City of Madison Police Chief Travis Stapp reports similar numbers.
"The last one we had was probably close to a year ago," Stapp said. "A five- or six-year-old child entered onto the roadway from a private drive. A vehicle struck the child, but the child was not seriously injured."
Both were able, however, to identify key areas in both the city and county where cyclists should use extra caution. Stapp urged that cyclists exercise care at all of Madison's major intersections, while Markley asked that cyclists be wary of Dixie Highway, Old Mill Road, Newborn Road and Keencheefoonee Road.
"I think there's more cyclists in west Morgan County, but maybe that's because I live out there and see them more," Markley said.
As far as the rights of cyclists, both Markley and Stapp highlighted the fact that cyclists are subject to the same "Rules of the Road" as drivers.
"They are allowed to use the road just like motorists and should expect to use the road safely," Markley said. "They are slow-moving vehicles, though, so I'd ask them to stay to the side of the road so that people can pass them. I'd also ask them to ride at a reasonable hour; at dusk, they become their own safety hazard."
"Bicyclists have to obey the same 'Rules of the Road' that motor vehicles do - stop at red lights, use hand signals when turning at green lights," Stapp said.
Stapp added that, legally, cyclists under the age of 16 years are required to wear a helmet and, whether or not the cyclist is 16, that helmets are always a good idea.
Further, there are steps cyclists can take on their own to better their situation on the road.
"Wear bright clothing," Markley said. "They also sell lights that flash for the back of bikes. In areas where the roads are narrow, adhere to staying single-file. Don't block traffic, and be good partners on the roadway."
The Georgia Bicycle Safety Laws, available to the public though the Governor's Office of Highway Safety Web site, www.gohs.state.ga.us/gabikelaws.html, are designed to govern the behavior of cyclists in an effort to keep all who use the roads, cyclists and motorists, safe. These Georgia Bicycle Safety Laws include much of what Markley and Stapp elaborated to, including:
• "In Georgia, as in most states, the bicycle is legally a 'vehicle.' This classification means that general vehicular traffic law applies to the operation of a bicycle."
• 40-6-294 (a) states that cyclists "operating a bicycle near a roadway shall ride as near to the right side of the roadway as practicable, except when turning left or avoiding hazards to safe cycling, when the lane is too narrow to share safely with a motor vehicle, when traveling at the same speed as traffic, or while exercising due care when passing a standing vehicle or one proceeding in the same direction..."
• 40-6-294 (b) states that cyclists "riding bicycles upon a roadway shall not ride more than two abreast except on paths or parts of roadways set aside for the exclusive use of bicycles."
• 40-6-296 (a) begins to outline the requirements for the bicycle itself, stating that bicycles being used at night "shall be equipped with a light on the front which shall emit a white light visible from a distance of 300 feet from the front and with a red reflector on the rear of a type approved by the Department of Public Safety which shall be visible from a distance of 300 feet to the rear..."
• 40-6-296 (e) outlines the requirements for bicycle helmets, first expressing that "No person under the age of 16 years shall operate or be a passenger on a bicycle on a highway, bicycle path, or sidewalk...without wearing a bicycle helmet." It goes on to outline the definition of "bicycle helmet," the fit of such a helmet and the rental or lease of a bicycle to a person under 16-years-old without a helmet.
• 40-6-297 (a) pedals, whether sold on a bicycle or separately, must be "equipped with reflectors of a type approved by the Department of Public Safety."
• Further, the Georgia Bicycle Safety Laws outline the number of people permitted on a bicycle; attachments to bicycles, as well as the appropriate age levels for those attachments; and the transport of items on a bicycle.
Just like cyclists, drivers are also expected to follow the same "Rules of the Road."
"Just keep in mind that you're sharing the roads with others here," Markley said. Safely pass cyclists with on the roadway when it's safe to do so. We expect everybody to use common sense."
As far as the roads themselves, steps have been taken in the past to make them more conducive to cyclists.
"We ask the DOT from time to time to look at the main streets in a speed survey, and they have lowered speed limits in the past," Madison City Manager David Nunn said. "We did a speed improvement project a few years ago. Between the Historic District and I-20, we improved signage and widened lanes so that cyclists that want to brave that area can do so."
According to Nunn, last year's transportation plan kept all modes of transportation in mind, including ideas that cater to cyclists as well as pedestrians, walkers and joggers.
Morgan County Manager Michael Lamar acknowledged that the county doesn't have any designated cycling routes, but believes that there is signage in some places throughout the county.
Lamar continued to say that the advent of cyclists into the county would, most likely, bring about more changes to the roads.
"As more people come to the community, more cyclists come to the community, there's a great chance they county's going to look at signage and bike routes," Lamar said. "It hasn't been a concern in the past, but that's not to say as more cyclists come into the county they won't have to look at putting in more signage, that kind of thing."
Meanwhile, there are more and more individuals, and groups, coming to Madison and Morgan County to ride bikes. Aside from the BRAG (Bike Ride Across Georgia) Spring Tune-Up Ride, which comes to town this Thursday through Sunday, Morgan County will see three additional cycling events this year.
"Other upcoming events throughout the end of the year include, May 17 through May 18, the Action Cycling 200 Bike Ride to benefit Emory; two in October - we are working with Cycleworks out of Atlanta and they are doing a Sunday ride October 19, and we're anticipating 400 riders in that; Camp Twin Lakes is partnering with the Convention and Visitors Bureau for the Spin for Kids Bike Ride all-day event Sunday, October 26, that benefits Camp Twin Lakes," Convention and Visitors Bureau Project Coordinator Andy Williams said. "We're beginning to become quite a bit of a cycling destination."
And most everyone seems to credit the fact that more and more cyclists are coming to Morgan County to the scenery and atmosphere that the county provides them.
"I think that a lot of them do it for the scenery and for the routes," Williams said. "Madison's close in proximity to Atlanta, as far as waking up and coming to Madison, they can be here in an hour. I think they enjoy the appearance, the aesthetic quality of downtown and the rural area that the routes encompass."
Palmer attests to the fact that the scenery is what keeps him riding.
"Now that I've been here a year, I see that Morgan County is a mecca for bikers," Palmer said. "I've only been in Madison a little over a year, and it amazes me what a great place it is to ride. I couldn't think of a better place to ride than where I am now."
According to Palmer, Morgan County drivers are much tamer than those he encountered in his former home of Raleigh, North Carolina, even despite his earlier incident.
"Coming from North Carolina, Raleigh, the drivers in Morgan County seem to be great," Palmer said. "You get an occasional cat call from kids riding in cars, but I ride my bike for two hours and people give me plenty of space. Drivers in Raleigh are less courteous. I remember trying to ride a road bike in town. I got a lot of yells, a lot of buzzing. I think some people just like to see how close they can come to hitting you without hitting you."
Further, Markley points out that, despite the increase in traffic as well as extra sense of caution that must be used on the road, the county does benefit from the increase in cyclists.
"They (the cyclists) come to Morgan County to see how beautiful it is," Markley said. "We benefit from the tax dollars they spend here."
Even considering the potential danger, Palmer plans to continue cycling.
"It's a hobby," Palmer said. "I do it for fitness and recreation and I'm a bike racing fan."
And Jennifer will continue to worry about him.
"Every time he goes out the door, I wonder if he's going to come home, and you shouldn't have to do that when it's a sport they enjoy," Jennifer said. "You see the back of cyclists, you see the back of him (Palmer), but that cyclist has a wife and a baby girl."
But, she realizes why he, and all cyclists, choose to pursue the sport.
"Because he loves to do it," Jennifer said.