The varied responses to the death of cyclist Michelle Walters during the recent Ironman Boulder race, as well as Mark Shelton's vivid recounting of what he describes as an intentional hit-and-run in Denver, indicate that the tension between many drivers and cyclists in the area remains at a very high level.
That's no surprise to Trooper Nate Reid, a spokesman for the Colorado State Patrol.
According to Reid, who revealed to us that the driver in the Walters crash is unlikely to be charged, "I get a lot of calls from cyclists and a lot of calls from drivers — a lot of complaints on both sides."
Reid stresses that the Colorado State Patrol does its best not to pick favorites in this dispute. "We have to find a way to share the same pieces of real estate," he says, "and I am totally in the middle. I don't want anyone to think the state patrol is out to get drivers or cyclists or anyone. We just want to stop these crashes that end up in injury and sometimes in death."
What gripes does Reid hear most often from drivers about cyclists?
"One thing they seek is enforcement on our end, or they want something done at a legislative level," he replies. "Their frustration is that they think there's not as much enforcement on bicycles as there is on the motoring public."
For example, Reid continues, "they'll say, 'Cyclists aren't waiting their turn at a stoplight,' or 'They just ride through stop signs,' or 'I'm waiting in traffic. Why do they get to take the right shoulder and ride to the front of the line?'"
The decision about whether or not to cite cyclists in such situations can be tricky, Reid acknowledges.
"Our troopers know the law, but oftentimes when a police car shows up, people start to behave differently," he says. "If a bicycle rides through a red light, that's a violation. But cyclists can get through traffic easier, and it's easier for a bicycle to switch between modes of being a vehicle and a pedestrian — so some of them will think, 'I'll just ride through a crosswalk.' Sometimes they'll want to be a bicycle and sometimes they won't. That seems to be the mentality," and plenty of drivers who've contacted him don't like it.
Cyclists, too, complain about a lack of enforcement on drivers who behave badly around them — particularly when they follow closer than the minimum distance of three feet. "We only have a couple of seconds to measure if there's three feet between a bicycle and a car," he allows, "so it's oftentimes a judgement call on the trooper's behalf about whether something is a violation."
Also concerning to cyclists are drivers who make overt demonstrations of frustration — honking at or flipping off bicycle riders while coming so close to them that truly dangerous accidents can happen. Reid only rarely witnesses this kind of behavior either on the job or off. For the most part, he says, "I see cyclists getting along with drivers. But I hear about when drivers don't, and I know that watching cyclists go through stop signs can be frustrating for them. That's why, if I was in a patrol capacity and I saw a cyclist do that, I would have a chat with them — and if that leads to enforcement, that's what it is."
Even so, Reid believes that "everyone needs educating on this, and drivers need to take a step back and put themselves in that person's shoes. That person is just trying to enjoy their hobby, and yes, they need to respect the rules of the road. But the person in that vehicle needs to respect what the cyclist is doing, too."
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As Reid notes, "The State of Colorado is such a great place to live and work and recreate that it's unfortunate we get so caught up and upset at other people who are trying to do those things, too. And we have thousand of miles of road that are great for riding bicycles; CDOT has done a great job of keeping them in good shape."
He also issues one last plea for understanding: "I know people think police officers, troopers and deputies are always where you don't want them to be — like when you're speeding. But they may not necessarily be there when a driver doesn't give a cyclist three feet or a bicycle runs through a stop sign. So when we're not there, we just want everybody to try to get along."