Mac Mouths Off

Nicole Robinson

On a warm autumn day in 1989, my parents watched as I went through one of the watershed moments of many American childrens’ lives – the first bicycle ride without training wheels.

Our house was in the middle of the block on Eau Claire’s north side. It wasn’t fancy, but it presented many of the same challenges as any other neighborhood to a wabbly 6-year-old including bushes, pine trees and vine-filled chain link fences.

It’s clear that many people riding bikes on or near campus don’t understand traffic laws.

Like most other kids on their first ride without a safety net, I crashed – right into a fence laced with thorny vines. I scraped my knees. I cried. I was carried home.

The next day, I tried it again. And like most people, I learned to ride a bike, which was the only vehicle I used until I turned 16 and was given my first car.

Admittedly, the occasions I’ve been on a bike since I got a driver’s license have been few and far between.

With the recent spike in gas prices this summer and early fall, many UW-Eau Claire students have opted to use their bikes as a main mode of transportation. In many respects this makes total sense. Riding a bike can save hundreds of dollars in fuel costs, is better for the environment and is a heck of a lot faster than taking the Nike express.

However, problems crop up when hundreds of people like me, who haven’t saddled up a bike since they were children, begin to use these machines as their main mode of transportation. From personal observation in the past few weeks, it’s clear that many people riding bikes on or near campus don’t understand traffic laws, creating dangerous situations not only for themselves, but for motorists and pedestrians.

Last week I attempted a left turn at the corner of Summit Street and Park Avenue. As I waited for pedestrians and other vehicles to clear the way, I was also forced to dodge bicycles who not only zoomed across in pedestrian lanes, but also one that crossed Summit Street diagonally.

During the first week of school, I saw a bicyclist on State Street choose to ride on the wrong side of the street against traffic.

And it’s nearly a daily problem to walk around campus without being fearful that I’m going to be plowed over by a wabbly student who hasn’t ridden a bike since they were 13.

This is getting ridiculous.

Not to say bicycles do not have a place on and near campus. A former Spectator staffer practically lived for riding his bike. To call him an enthusiast would be an understatement.

However, he also put time into the sport, riding in races and spending his spare time riding on local bike trails. He understood his place in the traffic flow, and the laws pertaining to bicycle use. If more people came equipped with this basic skill and knowledge many problems could be solved.

So let’s review a few of these local and state statues regarding bicycles.

First, state statutes list bicycles as a vehicle. As such, they are given the same rights and responsibilities as other vehicles, such as cars.

Also, bicycles are to ride as far to the right as they safely can.

When turning, it’s not OK simply to veer in another direction. By statute, bicyclists are required to use the same hand signals as motorists.

In addition to state regulations, there are city statutes that further limit bicycle use in the interest of everyone’s safety.

The city does not allow people to ride bicycles on the sidewalk in the “central business district,” bordered by Madison Street, Dewey Street, Lake Street and the Chippewa River – i.e. downtown. It also does not allow bicycles on sidewalks in the Water Street District.

In places where bicycles are allowed on the sidewalk, city statutes state that pedestrians must be given the right-of-way.

The laws are in place. But what I haven’t heard much of are Eau Claire Police officers citing bicyclists who disobey these laws. I’d like to think if there was proper enforcement around campus, I would have overheard whining from bikers. I haven’t.

Perhaps the university should issue informational fliers to students at the beginning of the school year detailing these laws. Maybe we need posters showing how to use hand signals, because it’s likely most of us forgot them right after our driving exam.

Maybe the city needs to undertake more street widening projects, such as the one on a portion of Water Street, which now has bike lane. But this is expensive, and in a time of budget problems, isn’t too likely.

The responsibility for keeping bicyclists safe ultimately lies with bicyclists. Just like driving a car, driving a bike through the city is a privilege, not a right.

MacLaughlin is a senior print journalism major and editorial editor of The Spectator. Mac Mouths Off is a weekly column that appears every Thursday.