Three years ago, Schenectady resident Tom Ambros was hit by a car while riding his bicycle and left unconscious in a ditch next to Route 146 in Niskayuna.
One moment he was coming through a light, and the next he was on the ground, with a good Samaritan “asking me if I’m OK,” he said. He had no recollection of his crash and assumed that an equipment failure caused him to fall.
But then he examined his bicycle.
“I saw a strike on the left side,” Ambros recalled. “And as I looked further, I saw that my cleat was still in the pedal. That was kind of when I realized that I’d been hit.”
Three days later, Ambros went to the Niskayuna Police Department to report a hit-and-run. The officer he met with was skeptical, he said. “He said, ‘How do we know this even happened in Niskayuna?’ ” Ambros recalled. “It was clear he was probing, that he was not accepting what I had to tell him at face value.”
But thanks to a tip, the Niskayuna Police Department was able to solve the mystery of Ambros’ accident, and today the avid cyclist credits the department with conducting a thorough investigation and successfully prosecuting the driver.
He now wonders whether a recent fatal bicycle accident received the same level of scrutiny and consideration.
At the end of June, Johnstown resident Ed Lakata was riding his bicycle north along Route 29A in Johnstown when he was struck by a pickup truck, thrown from his bike and killed on impact.
Fulton County Sheriff Thomas Lorey declined to press charges against the driver, John Damphier, also of Johnstown. He said Damphier reported that Lakata was having a hard time biking up a hill and “the bike started to wobble and wobbled right into the side of the truck.” He also said that if Damphier had crossed the solid white line between the shoulder and driving lane prior to the crash, he would be facing charges, and if Lakata had crossed into the driving lane, he would be to blame for the accident.
However, Ambros and other cyclists say the sheriff’s comments raise questions. They note that bicycles are considered traffic under state law and that they are permitted on the road even if there isn’t a bike lane or shoulder for them to ride in.
“New York state traffic law affords cyclists the same rights and responsibilities as motorists,” Ambros wrote in a letter to The Sunday Gazette. He added, “There is no mention of the white line in any part of this section.”
One cyclist, Doug Southwick of East Greenbush, pointed out that in 2010, a state law requiring motorists to maintain a “safe distance” when passing bicyclists “on the same side of the roadway” went into effect. In addition, state law also requires drivers to “exercise due care to avoid colliding with any bicyclist, pedestrian or domestic animal upon any roadway” and to “give warning by sounding the horn when necessary.”
Lakata’s death has exposed long-simmering tensions between cyclists and drivers. Some, such as Ambros, have written letters to The Gazette to defend cyclists and inform readers of their right to the road, while others have written to complain about how cyclists conduct themselves.
One Gazette letter writer, D.J. Potts of Schenectady, said laws cannot protect cyclists and “in their quest for health, exercise and well-being, bicyclists choose to put themselves into what is, by the laws of physics, a very risky endeavor.”
He added, “Being in charge of a 3,500-pound vehicle at 35 mph and putting on makeup, drinking coffee and/or talking on a cellphone (although illegal) happens and is wrong, irresponsible, selfish, etc. But it is, unfortunately, reality. Bicyclists need to understand their chances in such a conflict are poor. The laws of science are not in their favor. Lobby for a more extensive network of bike paths and use them. Exercise off the main roads. Take mass transportation. Show responsibility for your own safety and stop asking others to protect you from life.”
What the law says
New York state traffic law states that bicycles and inline skates “shall be driven either on a usable bicycle or inline skate lane or, if a usable bicycle or inline skate lane has not been provided, near the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway or upon a usable right-hand shoulder in such a manner as to prevent undue interference with the flow of traffic except when preparing for a left turn or when reasonably necessary to avoid conditions that would make it unsafe to continue along near the right-hand curb or edge. Conditions to be taken into consideration include, but are not limited to, fixed or moving objects, vehicles, bicycles, inline skates, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards or traffic lanes too narrow for a bicycle or person on inline skates and a vehicle to travel safely side-by-side within the lane.”
Lorey defended his department’s handling of the accident.
“Several of us who were at the accident scene have investigated numerous accidents,” he said. “The people second-guessing [the investigation] don’t have any idea what happened.”
Last week, the sheriff said he was familiar with the “safe distance” law but maintained that “there was no hard physical evidence to prove which vehicle was on or over the line.” The only thing he and his crew could determine, he said, was that the crash occurred “on or very close to the line.” There were two witnesses, he said: an oncoming motorist and a man doing lawn work. However, “they were not able to provide us with a good description. There was no indication of which vehicle was where.”
To Dave Kraus, a cyclist who belongs to the Mohawk-Hudson Cycling Club, the sheriff’s comments about the white line are troubling. “The sheriff seemed to be unacquainted with traffic law,” he said.
Josh Wilson, the executive director of the New York Bicycling Coalition, declined to comment directly on the accident but said his organization was looking into it.
Wilson said the New York Bicycling Coalition would like the state’s safe distance law to specify a distance. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 32 states have safe distance laws; 22 of those states require a minimum three- or four-foot passing distance.
“Three feet is pretty standard,” Wilson said. “We think that if there’s a distance it will make it easier for law enforcement to enforce the law and that it will give drivers more clarity.”
Wilson said New York’s safe distance law was passed without much promotion. As a result, many people, including cyclists, are unaware of the safe distance law. There are also questions about whether such laws are enforceable.
“The problem with laws like this is that they’re useless,” Kraus said. “How do we prove that somebody is closer than three feet? The only de facto proof is if a guy hits you. Nobody’s out there with a ruler.”
Ambros said safe distance laws aren’t necessary.
“We already have laws on the books,” he said. “People have just got to follow them.”
Lorey, the sheriff, echoed this.
“I think it’s kind of hard to enforce,” he said.
Some cyclists objected to the sheriff noting that Lakata wasn’t wearing reflective gear or a helmet in his early remarks about the collision.
“He seemed to blame the cyclist,” Kraus said. “This is a pattern I’ve seen time and time again in stories like this.”
In his letter, Ambros noted that the accident occurred “at 9:28 a.m., approximately four hours after sunrise, on a partly cloudy summer day. There was enough light for the cyclist to be seen by an attentive driver.”
But Lorey said many of the cycling enthusiasts who bike through rural Fulton County wear reflective gear as well as helmets and outfit their bikes with mirrors. Lakata, he said, “had no safety equipment. … I don’t think a [reflective] vest would have helped him, but a helmet might have.”
He said that authorities checked Damphier’s cellphone and determined that he wasn’t using it at the time of the accident.
The fact that cyclists have a right to the road doesn’t make biking alongside cars easy or pleasant.
Many drivers “don’t bother to move over an inch,” Kraus said. “They pass on blind hills, they pass on blind curves. God forbid they be delayed for five or 10 seconds. … A minority of drivers are actively hostile. A majority are ignorant. They’ve never been on a bicycle in traffic, and they have no idea what it’s like when a car comes too close to you.”
He added, “It’s a dark joke among my cycling friends that if you want to kill someone, wait until they’re on a bicycle so you can run over them and get away with it.”
“We try to go on roads where there are less vehicles,” Southwick said. Cyclists often encounter shoulders that are narrow and in poor condition, he said, which necessitates biking on the road.
“You always have to pay attention,” he said. “What’s frustrating is if you’re out biking and people buzz right by you or hate bikes and purposely bike too close to you.”
“I generally avoid riding after work,” Ambros said. “Drivers are tired and angry.”