Reflecting on Safety in the Wake of a Tragedy
On Thursday, March 22, we learned the tragic news of a cyclist’s death at the east end of Purgatory Road in Middletown. A beautiful well-traveled, oft-cycled area approaching Second Beach. The news that the cyclist was riding the steep eastbound downhill with the low sun behind him, and that the driver was turning left at a blind curve with the sun in front of him, stopped our hearts. Bad timing leading to a worst nightmare.
The official police report released one week later confirmed that the driver, Arthur Chapman of Portsmouth, never saw the cyclist, Michael Strickland of Middletown. Michael, an Australian national on a two-year assignment at NUWC, was a loving husband and father, an exceptionally kind and generous friend and an accomplished athlete. In his short time in our community, Michael made friendships that would have lasted a much longer lifetime.
Our hearts go out to the Stricklands and to their family and friends. And also to the Chapmans. We can only imagine their pain.
On Saturday, March 31, some 70 cyclists honored Mike with a 15-mile slow ride, escorted by Newport and Middletown police. The goal: to show support for Mike’s family and to bring more awareness to cycling safety.
Cyclists of all abilities rode to the site of the accident to pay respects and then to the Strickland house to offer the love and support of friends, neighbors and strangers. Tony Strickland, Mike’s father, and Miki, one of his 10-year old twin daughters, joined the ride for the final five miles. More than a dozen riders held back to follow Miki and surround her with a big bicycling hug of support as she worked her way up the hills of Paradise Road, Purgatory Road and Memorial Blvd. When she stopped for a break and a swig of chocolate milk, we all stopped with her. She stopped again near the site of her father’s accident, turning her eyes but not her head to the memorial wreath of flowers tied to a bicycle wheel. A heart wrenching but promising glimpse of one of Miki’s first brave steps forward without her dad.
I didn’t know Mike personally. Mitch Turner, Mike’s close friend and the coordinator of the ride, had asked Bike Newport to help get the word out. Emailing with Mitch and chatting with Mike’s other friends along the ride brought the emotion of the whole horrible event to the surface and my own heavy heart released tears at the site and again at Mike’s house when I assured his wife, Emma, that the community would be there for her.
It didn’t occur to me until later that Emma and the girls would be gone in two days. They were already packed for Perth. They’ll be back in Australia by the time most of you read this post. In notes of support written to the family, many of the riders promised to keep Mike’s memory alive here in Newport.
So now we have a job to do. We may not be able to stop accidents like Mike’s. A low sun will blind drivers and hide riders. And long hills will beckon experienced cyclists to ride low and fast, thrilling at the accelerating descent. Bad things happen. They happen everywhere for every reason. As they happened on Purgatory Road on March 22.
But there is a lesson and a message: Our best defense is to be prepared – as cyclists, as motorists and as a community.
Cyclists need to be visible, protected and predictable. In a car-bicycle encounter, the car will always win. Period. We have to cut our risk by wearing bright colored clothing, using lights and reflectors, wearing a helmet, signaling our intentions and following every rule of the road. We need to consider and choose the best routes for our purposes, and we need to breathe through encounters with aggressive drivers. We can be part of efforts to improve cycling by advocating for road-sharing education, for improved roads and road markings, and for dedicated recreational bicycle paths.
Motorists need to be courteous to bicyclists. Cyclists have a right to be on the road and the need to be safe. We will ride as far to the right as is safe, but we can’t ride closer than four feet from a car door that might suddenly open, and we can’t ride in roadside debris or broken pavement. If we’re 13 years or older, we can’t ride on the sidewalks. Motorists need to relax and be patient when we’re sharing a road or a busy intersection and give us a chance to get where we are going safely.
Cities and school districts need to be involved. Cyclists and motorists won’t magically understand what it means to share the road. We need signs, road markings, banners, campaigns and education. Imagine if every child learned cycling skills and safety in Phys Ed. Imagine if every Driver Ed class taught road sharing and every road test tested it.
We shouldn’t be frightened away from bicycling. But we can take this frightening moment to recommit to improvement. As Bike Newport’s mission states: we want to improve and encourage bicycling. Bicycling contributes directly to improved health, economy, ecology, historic preservation, productivity and quality of life. It’s low cost and it’s high return. It makes our kids healthier and our visitors happier. We want more people bicycling.
There are rock-solid statistics that translate to this formula: More people on bicycles = fewer accidents. Why? Because the more people on bicycles, the more aware the motorists, and the better the road sharing behavior by both.
This morning, I dropped a note to Mitch Turner to thank him. I told him he did a wonderful thing by planning yesterday’s ride to honor Mike Strickland. His answer was: “Thank you Bari, but I did nothing . . . it’s the wonderful community we live in that did a beautiful thing . . . and that is why I love living here.” I understand Mike’s answer, because I’m also a Newport Newbie, and I also love living here. We are indeed part of a wonderful and supportive community. So together let’s commit to the one thing that can prevent another accident like Mike’s. Let’s prepare.
We’re taking a big step in this direction at Bike Newport – we’re about to train 15 residents as League Certified Instructors. It’s an intensive program provided by the national League of American Bicyclists. The training is made possible by nearly 200 supporters who attended our recent Bike Newport Night fundraiser. With this training, we’ll gain a better understanding of what it means to share the road – and we’ll share that knowledge with Newport’s cyclists, motorists, tourists, businesses, schools and community leaders.
I like to refer to Newport as a “Bicycle-Friendly-Community-Waiting-to-Happen.” Let’s work together to really make it happen. Let’s do it in the best interest of our youth, our families, our visitors, our businesses, our historic properties, our natural environment and our future – and in honor of Mike Strickland.