OKEECHOBEE — After several recent bike versus vehicle accidents, local law enforcement is concerned.
Although Florida was named the 10th most bicycle-friendly state in America by the League of American Bicyclists in 2019, it also leads the nation in bicycle deaths. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 16% of the 783 bicyclists killed in the U.S. in 2017 were in Florida.
In a recent survey of Florida cyclists conducted by The American Automobile Association (AAA), 36% say they do not wear a helmet while riding a bicycle, 56% ride with traffic while 21% ride against traffic, and 74% of those who ride against traffic do so because they prefer to see approaching vehicles. (Florida law states bicyclists should ride in the same direction with the flow of traffic.)
“Whether you operate a large truck, passenger vehicle, motorcycle or bicycle, take responsibility for your role on the road,” said the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (FLHSMV) Executive Director Terry L. Rhodes. “Drivers must always look twice for other road users, use caution when changing lanes and give others plenty of space. We all share Florida’s roadways, so always look out for one another to Arrive Alive.”
“Motorists and cyclists play an equal part in sharing the road,” said AAA spokesman Mark Jenkins. “While motorists need to eliminate distractions and watch for people on bikes, cyclists can do their part by wearing a helmet and brightly colored clothing. Bicyclists who do not go with the flow of traffic are putting their lives in danger. Although it may be more comforting for a cyclist to see approaching motorists, this creates scenarios where drivers may not see them. That’s because drivers do not always check for wrong-way traffic before entering an intersection.”
AAA recommends cyclists keep the following tips in mind to remain safe:
• Ride on the roadway or shared pathways, rather than on sidewalks.
• Follow the same rules of the road as other roadway users, including riding in the same direction as traffic and following all the same traffic signs and signals.
• Signal all turns.
• Wear a properly fitted bicycle helmet every time and on every ride.
• Be visible by wearing bright colors during the day, reflective gear in low-light conditions and head and tail lights at night.
• Respect is a two-way street. Show motorists the same courtesy you expect from them.
The Center for Urban Transportation Research, University of South Florida, did a study for the Florida Department of Transportation in 2011 which said Florida’s pedestrian fatality rates were nearly double the national average and our bicycle fatality rates were nearly triple the national average. According to their study, most of these accidents occurred in midblock locations where people tried to cross without going to a crosswalk.
The second highest was at intersections, and the cause for these accidents was usually due to either left-turning maneuvers or right-turn-on-red maneuvers.
The study found 68% of pedestrian fatalities in Florida in 2010 occurred during non-daylight hours.
AAA also recommends these tips for motorists to help keep cyclists safe:
• Stay alert — avoid all distractions while driving.
• Yield to bicyclists while turning.
• In bad weather, give bicyclists extra passing room, as you would other motorists.
• Look for bicyclists by checking mirrors and blind spots before entering or leaving a lane of traffic.
• Slow down and give at least 3 feet of clearance when passing.
• Reduce your speed when passing bicyclists, especially when the road is narrow.
• NEVER honk your horn at a bicyclist. ; it could cause them to swerve into traffic or off the roadway and crash.
• Always check for bicyclists before opening your car door.
Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office has been concerned enough about these bicycle traffic accidents that they sought and received grants to help finance programs for education and enforcement. According to Community Relations Specialist Cpl. Jack Nash, in 2020 they received a grant for 13K called the “DOT Grant 54 – Bicycle/Pedestrian.”
This grant was specifically for overtime to deal with Pedestrian and Bicycle Education through Enforcement. Areas where injury/death incidents were higher became the target of this enforcement.
Approximately ten deputies were certified by DOT (Department of Transportation) to participate in the efforts. Two days each week were designated as enforcement days.
The results were that they saw a 10% decrease in the injury/death rate in those areas. However, other sites with no previous history offset the total number of injured/killed in Okeechobee County as a whole. For that reason, they have requested an additional 7k for a total this year of 20k, roughly 800 overtime hours for county-wide enforcement. They will not know until August 2021 if they received this year’s grant and the exact amount.
OCSO & Okeechobee County Fire Rescue teamed up and sent two team members through the DOT granted helmet installation and bicycle safety course. With the grant, they received bicycles, helmets, and respective training gear to start partnering on bicycle rodeos; however, due to Covid-19, this initiative is in a holding pattern.
“One goal during this campaign was to educate our community in the generalities of the bicycle/pedestrian laws,” said Nash. “Enforcement can range from a verbal or written warning or result in a ‘Uniformed Traffic Citation.’ Although enforcement measures varied during each encounter, our primary goal was to ensure our community members’ safety and education and reduction of injuries and deaths based on known previous bicycle/pedestrian incidents.”
Sgt. Cesar Romero of the Okeechobee Police Department summed it up by saying, “It only takes a second for something to happen. Even if you see a vehicle coming, how long does it take for a vehicle traveling 45 mph to travel five feet? If I look down at my phone, and he looks down at his phone, and texting and driving is one of the biggest things now. People don’t realize that split second is all it takes. How many times have you swerved off the road looking at your GPS? Looking at your phone? A split second. Had there been a person walking or riding a bike there, that would have been an accident right there. You, as a pedestrian, need to be vigilant of the vehicles and the people around you. No matter where I am, I watch the cars around me, and I try to catch the driver’s eye if I am trying to cross the street. If I don’t catch his eye, if he isn’t paying attention, I wait. If you get into an accident, we can ticket someone, but what good does that do you if you are injured or dead?”
Richard Marion contributed to this article.