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All Points West: In training? Keep an eye on drivers
August 06, 2015 Frank Marquez   

Read more by Frank Marquez
Being a city boy several times during the course of my adult life, you think I might have stopped zooming down streets on my bicycle at break-neck speeds.

Twice, I have been in head-to-heads with cars. One of those times was back in college, when racing against the four-wheel types to the street signals had more appealó especially after being cut off in a car culture such as California. In my head, I often caught up to offenders to have a Walter Mitty moment of delivering a stern lecture on safety. The other incident in Tokyo was seemingly less tame, and certainly, with less road rash, but topped the 1-to-10 drama scale at 11.

I was out with my cycling buddy navigating the narrow streets of the city on our way to a 50-mile no-car zone bike path along the Tama River. He was one of those guys who showed little mercy when it came to slipping through the small cracks of daylight in traffic and then leaving you behind to fend for yourself.

To give you some perspective on the size of some of those life-or-death gaps in traffic, consider the alleyways here in Gering and Scottsbluff. Some would qualify as full-size roads in Tokyo. Heck, our sidewalks are bigger. Getting past cars and trucks on such throughways meant keeping a steady grip on your handlebars. That was not always the case, when gravity had its way. Leaning on vehicles with your outstretched arms wasnít out of the question. Drivers didnít always like it, but getting yelled at was better than getting hit.

On one occasion, an overanxious driver closed the gap on me. In doing so, he tapped my bicycle frame, and I had to back out of the tight space. As traffic eventually moved forward, he and the other drivers went back into a marked lane. I saw an opening. I got back on my pedals and picked up some speed to get past the bumper-to-bumper lineup. The same driver saw me coming up the narrow aisle and he turned his front wheels to keep me from getting past, but by that time I couldnít slow down and his side-view mirror, which I grabbed to steady myself, became a casualty of our encounter. It broke apart as easily as Legos hitting the street and shattering.

As I looked back to apologize, he got out of his car and yelled a few choice words in Japanese. Then, he picked up the mirror and threw it in my direction. Knowing little of the language (conversational lessons unfortunately didnít include the chapter on profanity), his words fell flat on my gaijin (foreigner) ears. You may wonder if this whole incident was carelessness on my part. In my youth, perhaps. In Japan, those arguments donít apply. The golden rule in Tokyo about who is at fault doesnít follow the same guidelines or principles here in the United States. There, the larger vehicle is always at fault. Thereís no insurance investigation, no cop report. Nada.

The owner of the larger vehicle pays a settlement for damages and hospital stay, if there should be one. And, the payment is made in cash, all of it, courteously delivered to the victim with grandiose gestures of an apology. This sure beats the bureaucratic entanglements we have here, and paying a lawyer if it should come to that.

Itís a big lesson for car and truck drivers because it prompts them to drive more safely and courteously. Whatís the biggest difference between here and there? Here, there are thousands more two-wheelers on the road, not just cyclists, but Vespa, scooter, and motorcycle riders. We simply donít expect to see them.

The first time I was hit, I took a spill at an intersection near my college. Crossing the intersection, a driver made a left turn against traffic. It was dusk, and she couldnít see me pedaling furiously to get across the intersection as the light turned yellow. I probably got about halfway across the road as the light turned red. Her attention was on the light, not me. Her 2,000-pound SUV started to make the turn and hit the chain stay of my bicycle, missing my pedal and foot by mere inches. The result? My bike and I slid about 25 feet from the intersection and I ended up underneath a pickup truck. There, I stared up at the driver, who leaned out his window to ask if I was OK. He eventually got around to asking the right question, which was ďcan I help you?Ē Suffering minor road rashes and bruises, I got up to drag my bike out from underneath his pickup. I was more hurt to see my half-mangled bike. Meanwhile, the nearly hysterical driver of the SUV was in more shock than me.

Now flip the script. Iím in my vehicle, granted I donít drive the commonly seen Chevy or Ford full-size pickup, which are vehicles better fitted to travel the dusty country roads here, especially after drenching thunderstorms create deep muddy ruts. My Honda two-door coupe still adds up to a hunk of deadly metal once speeds exceed even 10 miles an hour. A few weeks ago, while driving on a road near the outskirts of Gering, I came upon a family, dismounted from their vehicle, standing nonchalantly in the middle of the road. Two of the kids were on bikes. Always careful, driving well below the speed limit, the road meanders, which creates a few blind turns. I slowed almost to a halt while said family cleared the road. I waved to them, thankful I wasnít going any faster. A lot of ďwhat-ifsĒ rolled through my mind. What if I had been going faster? What if I had been in a larger vehicle? What if someone would have gotten hurt, or worse?

The reminder to pedestrians on country roads is worth making, too. Pedestrians donít casually waltz down the middle of downtown streets without looking both ways, and twice for good measure. The same rule applies out around the farms, especially when you see larger vehicles barreling around blind curves.

Slow down. Itís a simple act. Youíll still make it to your destination. As they say, better late and alive. And to walkers, runners, hikers, and birdwatchers, exercise caution. We may not have traffic lights on county roads, but we do have traffic. Maybe more than you think.

From what I have observed, not too much has changed from my days of growing up here in Gering in the 70s Ė life moves pretty slowly. Walkers, runners, cyclists and motorcyclists are out there Ė some practicing safety more than others. I wonít judge. Iíll just point out that tangling with a John Deere tractor is probably the last thing you want to do, if at all. Now, as a country boy reborn, and in the interest of prolonging my life and yours, pay attention and remember to enjoy the good life.

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