Walla Walla is known as a bicyclist’s paradise: relatively sparsely traveled rural roads with beautiful scenery. But these same roads are used by farmers, residents and other motorists. After several deaths the question remains: Is there room for everyone?
By Gillian Frew
It’s every cyclist’s worst nightmare: You’re pedaling uphill on a tranquil country road when a car behind you suddenly accelerates to pass, crossing the double yellow line, then is forced to retreat back into your lane at the last minute to avoid oncoming traffic. You swerve, narrowly escaping a collision.
Now imagine you’re behind the wheel of a pickup truck. It’s just starting to get dark, and visibility is poor. You round a blind curve at the legal speed limit of 50 miles per hour, and then you see a group of cyclists, some dressed in dark clothing, riding three abreast. You slam on your brakes.
“It’s an extremely dangerous situation for everyone,” says Amy White, whose family farms off Middle Waitsburg Road, a popular route for cyclists. “Country roads are narrow. They do not have a safety shoulder. They are bordered by soft gravel and mud that lead to ditches, embankments and field walls, all of which will cause serious injury to cyclists and drivers if they leave the roadway.”
These are examples of the worst-case scenario when it comes to cyclists and drivers sharing the road. It was in a similar situation that Garrison Middle School teacher Ann Weatherill was struck and killed by an oncoming motorist in 2004 while riding with friends on State Highway 124 between Prescott and Waitsburg. Her death led to the establishment of the Ann Law in Washington state, which makes it illegal for motorists to pass while an oncoming cyclist, pedestrian or equestrian is approaching.
Of course, the vast majority of cyclists and drivers on the roads are responsible, and interactions between the two, in and outside of town, are described — mostly — as amicable.
“In thousands of miles and 25 years of riding, I’d say the majority of motorists I’ve encountered have been respectful of the vulnerability of cyclists on the road,” says Jon Bren, the retired local banker and cycling enthusiast responsible for posting the “Share the Road” signs on nearby routes. “There are some built-in tensions between cyclists and drivers that have always been present, but 98 percent of motorists are respectful of cyclists.”
Yet accidents and near collisions do occur — particularly on rural roads such as Lower and Middle Waitsburg and Powerline roads. For professional and recreational cyclists alike, these routes offer beautiful countryside and relatively light traffic — seemingly idyllic riding conditions. But many commuters disagree, cautioning that the old roads are dangerous and weren’t built to accommodate the rising number of cyclists.
“Even when I’m lit up like a Christmas tree, I’ve had drivers get mad at me because they don’t think I should be out on the road,” says Greg Knowles, owner of Bicycle Barn, who’s been riding his bike in Walla Walla for the past 30 years. “I pay taxes, too. I deserve a spot on the road.”
Not surprisingly, when altercations do break out between cyclists and drivers, community response is often heated. With passionate arguments to be made on both sides and more cyclists flooding Walla Walla in the spring and summer, a consensus is yet to be reached: Who owns the road?
The Law of the Land
Legally, cyclists have the same rights as motorists and are obligated to obey the same rules. While on the roadway, cyclists are required to use proper hand signals, have properly functioning brakes and be equipped with lights or reflectors at night. Cyclists must also refrain from riding more than two abreast, except on paths or specially designated roadways, and should ride as near as possible to the right side of the road, if traveling at a speed slower than the flow of traffic.
“The laws really are simple common sense,” says Barry Blackman of the Walla Walla County Sheriff’s Office. “Although bicyclists often have the same right-of-way privileges as motorists, bicyclists must never forget the size and weight differences between them and a motor vehicle. My advice is to always give way to a motor vehicle, even if you feel you have the right of way.”
He adds that law enforcement takes the safety of everyone on public roads very seriously, and anyone who witnesses unsafe or unlawful behavior should “report it immediately to dispatch so an officer can check on it and take appropriate action.”
Debi Toews is a personal injury attorney in Walla Walla who represents cyclists. An avid cyclist, she was best friends with Ann Weatherill and was at the scene when she died. Since then, Toews has advocated increased cycling safety laws and has testified before the state House and Senate Transportation committees. Her efforts were instrumental in the passing of the Ann Law.
“Right now, one of the things we’re lobbying to do is get a three-foot passing law in place, not so much for the enforcement but for the awareness,” Toews says. “It’s all about increasing awareness to prevent tragedies. I do think that it’s possible for all of us to share the roads. Sometimes it may require a few seconds to make a safe pass, but waiting a few seconds can save a life.”
Washington State Bicycle Laws
With more people riding bicycles, following the rules of the road is especially important. A bicycle is a legal road vehicle, just like a car. This means bicycle riders have the same rights and responsibilities as drivers.
Here are some laws to be aware of, whether you are biking or driving a motor vehicle:
Riding Side by Side — Cyclists may ride side by side, but not more than two abreast (RCW 46.61.770).
Shoulder vs. Bike Lane — Cyclists may choose to ride on the path, bike lane, shoulder or travel lane as suits their safety needs (RCW 46.61.770).
Riding at Night — For night bicycle riding, a white front light (not a reflector) visible for 500 feet and a red rear reflector are required. A red rear light may be used in addition to the required reflector (RCW 46.61.780).
Riding on the Road — When riding on a roadway, a cyclist has all the rights and responsibilities of a vehicle driver (RCW 46.61.755). Cyclists who violate traffic laws may be ticketed (RCW 46.61.750).
Roads Closed to Bicycles — Some designated sections of the state’s limited access highway system may be closed to bicycles for safety reasons. In addition, local governments may adopt ordinances banning cycling on specific roads or on sidewalks within business districts.
Bicycle Helmets — There is no state law requiring helmet use. However, some cities and counties do require helmets.
Children Bicycling — Parents or guardians may not knowingly permit bicycle traffic violations by their ward (RCW 46.61.700).
Share the Road
Of the drawbacks commuters cite about cyclists on the road, the speed differential between cars and bikes tops the list. Farmers and other residents who drive roads like Middle Waitsburg every day also worry about visibility, and argue that the roads are too narrow to allow for safe passing.
“The fact that I might come up on someone in a blind curve and the speed differential might be 20 or 30 miles, that’s dangerous for me and it’s dangerous for the bike rider,” says Nat Webb, a wheat farmer who has lived in the area for almost 40 years. “Most accidents probably occur when the sun’s in somebody’s eyes or there’s a blind curve. When you come up over a hill, you’re not sure what you’re going to encounter.”
Kelly Harri, who lives in Milton-Freewater and often drives to visit family in Waitsburg and Dayton, agrees that rural roads are a bad option for cyclists.
“I’ve had too many encounters with cyclists and joggers on these roads,” she says. “I’m used to watching out for farm equipment and wildlife, but I think it’s reckless and dangerous for cyclists to be using them, too. I have friends who are cyclists. I don’t want to see anyone hurt.”
But according to Charles Stanger, the bicycling advocacy officer with Wheatland Wheelers, the roads aren’t the problem — it’s that drivers are impatient.
“There isn’t a road in Walla Walla County that isn’t designed to be safe,” he says. “We, as a society, don’t want to have to wait. It’s the same thing as the line at the grocery store.”
“Everyone has their own reason for not wanting cyclists on the roads,” adds Steve Rapp, who co-owns Allegro Cyclery. “I think, a lot of times drivers are on these winding roads, and they come around a corner and see a cyclist, and they feel like that’s really dangerous and the cyclist should get off the road. Maybe the driver should take the corner a little more carefully.”
“My argument with a lot of friends was, they’d say, ‘These roads are dangerous,’” explains Stanger. “So I went out to prove them wrong, and I measured it. If you do the math, there’s absolutely no way that a car should hit a bicyclist from behind because they don’t see it. On back roads, cyclists generally ride right at 20 to 25 miles per hour. If the speed limit is 50, that’s the equivalent of braking in a school zone. It doesn’t take that long.”
But residents who oppose cycling on certain roads say it’s not just about the mechanics. While experienced cyclists know how to behave on country roads and generally treat farmers with respect, the antics of a handful of unruly tourists or college students can sometimes reflect negatively on the rest of the cycling community.
“Most of the country folks aren’t against cyclists using the roads for recreation,” says Brian Fullen, who lives off Wallula Road. “But they’re already watching for deer, kids, dogs, farm machinery. A friend of mine was hauling his rodeo horses up Foster Road on a foggy day — tens of thousands of dollars in horses, a $50,000 trailer plus a $40,000 truck — and came up on a bunch of cyclists. He had to put his truck and trailer in the ditch, hurting his horses, and the bike riders never even stopped to help or apologize.”
“Another problem about cyclists out and about is when they stop and walk out into the fields for whatever reason,” White says. “We’ve even caught them having a picnic in the wheat, no clue they were damaging the crop and oblivious they were trespassing.”
“Some cyclists need to change,” Stanger acknowledges. “We need to be the smiling face on the road, waving to all the cars. We are the foreigners on the road. I would like to see every cyclist smile and wave to the cars, and tell them, ‘Thanks, have a nice day.’ When that’s the case, maybe one out of every 10 cars doesn’t wave back.”
No Fender Benders
If there’s one thing everyone on the road can agree on, it’s that cyclists are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to size and speed.
“It’s often said that there’s no such thing as a fender bender between a cyclist and an automobile,” says Jon Bren. “It almost always results in some kind of serious injury or death. Obviously, with so many years on the road, I immediately recognize a situation that could be dangerous or adverse to cyclists, but I think the typical situation that we see is the bad pass. If I look at the last 10 times when you just shake your head or give a sigh of relief that nobody got hurt or killed, it’s always because of the impatience of the motorist coming up behind cyclists.”
“One time, a driver came very close to me and another cyclist, honking,” says Alberto Santos-Davidson, a member of the Whitman College cycling team. “It scared me, but whatever.”
“Another driver tried to play ‘chicken’ with me: It was a two-way road, and he moved over into my lane. He was not avoiding anything, so I assume he was trying to run me off of the road. He was coming towards me, in my lane. Just when I was about to ride off into the ditch to avoid getting hit, he moved back to his lane. And once, when I was riding in the bike lane on Howard back towards campus, a lady passed me and then immediately made a right turn. I grabbed my brakes and she missed my front tire by a couple of inches. Then she drove off. I have no idea if it was deliberate, or if she is just a bad driver.”
“We all know road rage is real,” Knowles says. “When we’re behind the wheel, we don’t like people getting in our way.”
Bill Bogard, a Whitman sociology professor who has lived in the Valley for the past 27 years and specializes in social change and the sociology of everyday life, says we still live in a car culture.
“I think part of it has to do with territory, a sense of ‘This is my road.’ We live in a culture of the open road and the automobile, and it’s a culture where we value getting from one place to another very quickly.”
“It’s somewhat a class issue, somewhat a city-versus-country issue, you know, with the super-fit city folk going out to exercise in their fancy clothes,” jokes Tom Whipple, another Whitman student and cyclist who grew up in rural New England. “You’ve got the same issues back East, whether it’s yuppie skiers going to the mountains in Vermont or whatever — it’s the same issue.”
Solutions in Sight?
Sean Duffy is a Walla Walla physician. He bikes to work, and says he has noticed some improvement after several high-profile accidents in recent years have sparked more public awareness of cyclists on the road.
“Even when you’re riding out in the country, a great majority of the time, cars are cautious. I get passed by people driving grain trucks and 18-wheelers, who slow down and wave to me. It’s just a small minority of people who have hostility toward us, and I suspect they are people who just don’t like the changes that have happened to the county over the past 10 years. Every once in a while, that’ll occur to me if somebody passes me too closely, but cycling has been something that’s very good for me. It’s improved my physical health and made me a happier person. There are hazards in life, and sometimes bad things happen.”
Since the Ann Law passed in 2005, more legislation promoting bike safety has followed. In 2008, Washington state began requiring that public driver-education programs incorporate safe driving habits around cyclists into their curriculum. In 2011, thanks to the efforts of groups like Bicycle Alliance of Washington, that requirement was extended to traffic schools.
“More public knowledge and law enforcement knowledge helps,” says Steve Rapp. “Unfortunately, I think the audience of irritated motorists is not being addressed, and I don’t know how to reach out to those people. I want to ask them what their concerns are, hear their side of the conflict and see if there’s a way that we can address it that makes them happy and, hopefully, makes us happy, and just work it out so it’s a win-win.”
Bill Bogard suggests that creating more public space for cyclists might also alleviate some tension.
“There could be more bike lanes in town. If there were more bike trails, that would solve some of the problem,” he says. “Every town has to deal with a growing bike culture, but unfortunately, some places like Walla Walla just really don’t have the money to change the infrastructure or to pave the shoulders of the road.”
Wheat farmer Mark Small says it all comes down to watching out for one another. “We haul a lot of wheat on those roads, and during harvest we have to pull in and out of roads with big trucks, and people have to be cautious of that. We all have to look out for each other.”
By the Numbers: Cycling Safety in Washington State
1 – Washington’s national ranking as most “Bicycle-Friendly State”
10 – Percent increase in walking and biking in Washington State over the past five years
458 – Total number of traffic fatalities in Washington State in 2010 (earliest year for which comprehensive data is available). Less than 2 – Percent of these fatalities involving cyclists
6 – Number of cyclist fatalities statewide. Less than 1 – Number of cyclist fatalities per million residents
30 – Percent of cyclist fatalities that occurred in rural areas
17 – Percent of fatal collisions that occurred on country roads
70 – Percent of cyclist fatalities that occurred within the confines of the roadway
9 – Percent of cyclist fatalities that occurred on the shoulder of the road
35 or higher – Posted speed limit (MPH) on roads where majority of cycling fatalities occurred
34 – Percent of cyclist fatalities in which the driver or cyclist was under the influence of alcohol
SOURCES: Washington State Department of Transportation report (2013); National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report (2012)
Recent Cycling Deaths in Walla Walla County and Surrounding Areas
Ann Weatherill of Walla Walla
May 9, 2004
State Highway 124, between Prescott and Waitsburg
Struck and killed by an oncoming SUV that was attempting to pass a cattle truck and another vehicle. The SUV missed two other cyclists by inches before hitting Weatherill; the group of eight cyclists had been riding single file on the side of the road.
Marilyn Jensen of Weston
Aug. 10, 2005
State Highway 204, just north of Weston
Died instantly after being hit from behind by a teenage driver during her regular morning bike ride. The driver had unintentionally drifted onto the shoulder of the road while distracted by the sun and attempting to adjust the sun visor on the passenger’s side of the car.
Sally Eustis of Seattle
May 21, 2011
Middle Waitsburg Road, between Valley Grove and Chase roads
Died after being struck by a jeep that was attempting to navigate around her and a fellow cyclist during a morning ride. She was thrown onto the hood of the car and then off into a ditch; she died shortly after at Providence St. Mary Medical Center.
Jared Carr of Walla Walla
May 27, 2012
Old Inland Empire Highway, east of Prosser
Struck and killed by a drunk driver while fixing a flat tire on the shoulder of the road during a night ride. The driver, who was speeding, had swerved to avoid what he thought was a sunk in the middle of the road and lost control of the vehicle. Carr was wearing reflective gear.