“Oh yeah, they hurl beer bottles, anything they can find,” said Cupp, president of the Northeast Alabama Bicycle Association and avid cyclist in the area since 1988. “But there’s not nearly as much stuff being hurled at us anymore.”
Cupp was speaking just a few hours after the death of Derek Jensen on Golden Springs Road Thursday. Jensen, the director of external affairs at the Center for Domestic Preparedness, was struck by a truck and died while bicycling to work, according to Anniston police.
Jensen’s death is only the second of its kind in the urbanized Calhoun County area in the last five years, according to Jack Plunk, a principal planner with the East Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission and the Metropolitan Planning Organization, which develops the area’s bicycle and pedestrian transportation plan.
The rarity of such accidents here makes sense when put into comparison with nationwide statistics. The national average for cyclists killed every year has stayed consistent at or around 2 percent of all traffic-related deaths, according to numbers published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which were last tallied in 2009 when 630 people were killed while traveling on highways and roads.
But according to Elizabeth Kiker, vice-president of the League of American Bicyclists, those numbers are expected to have increased in the last three years with the rise of “distracted driving,” which includes texting and making phone calls on the road. Kiker said the only way safety will improve for cyclists is for strict regulation of safety laws for everyone riding in traffic.
“You need more enforcement,” Kiker said. “Just like motorists will obey speed limit laws if you ticket them, there needs to be more enforcement when it comes to awareness of sharing the road with cyclists.”
In areas where cycling is a larger phenomenon — places like Portland, Ore., and San Francisco, according to the League of American Bicyclists — “three-foot laws,” ordinances that state motorists must leave three feet between them and cyclists when passing, have come into fashion.
Three cities in Alabama — Auburn, Mobile and Montgomery — have three-foot laws, and Jacksonville has been discussing the possibility of joining those cities, according to Plunk.
In Montgomery, which passed the three-foot law in February, city Councilman Richard Bollinger said the city, alongside local bike groups, wants to build “complete streets” that have built-in walkways and bicycle lanes.
“We’d like to create an awareness,” Bollinger said. “The cyclists can say, ‘Hey, we’re out there, and we’re adhering to the same rules as you, but you also need to be on the lookout for us.’”
But laws are only good if they’re obeyed, and that’s where that awareness needs to comes into play, Plunk said. As a member of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, Plunk has been working on updating the county’s bicycle and pedestrian plan, which includes projects designed to increase the safety and facilities available to bikers in the area, but it’s up to residents of the county to understand how to be safe while traveling, he said.
“All the Metropolitan Planning Organization can do is to build infrastructure, smooth out roads, improve bike lanes,” Plunk said. “On the cycling safety side, we give a lot of instruction, especially to children. We hope they’ll remember some of that stuff when they grow up to be motorists.”
Mike Poe, a member of the Northeast Alabama Bicyclist Association, said he has seen an increase in respect between motorists and cyclists as the population of bike riders has steadily grown. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of people in Calhoun County commuting to work by means other than motor vehicles, public transportation or walking increased from 421 people in 2000 and 759 people in 2010.
“In the county, thank God, motorists are very respectful and they give us plenty of room,” Poe said. “I think that’s because our presence, people support us.”
Cupp said he had a close call while riding a bike in Anniston on 64th Street when he was clipped by a side mirror of a vehicle passing him. He said that was years ago, when he almost expected incidents like that to happen on narrow roads. Since then, things have improved measurably, he said.
“It’s gotten better because there’s more of us out there than ever before,” Cupp said. “We’re a close-knit community of bikers in the county, and now people know we’re out there.”
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.