Cindy Claycomb is a Wichita State professor who rides her bicycle 20 to 60 miles a week in good weather. Quite a few of those rides are on city streets, whether Claycomb is out for a serious workout or just picking up a loaf of bread.
Marty Johnson is president of a chain of garden centers who logs even more miles on his bike each week, riding on a combination of city streets and county roads to Lake Afton and other favorite destinations.
Cycling's popularity among adults like Claycomb and Johnson is easy to figure: It's an effective low-impact workout and environmentally friendly way to get around.
"I kind of stay in shape that way," Johnson said. "I enjoy the freedom of it."
But as more people take up cycling, riding more miles on roads shared with motor vehicles, the potential for collisions with those vehicles grows.
According to statistics compiled for The Eagle by the Wichita police department, 407 collisions between bicycles and motor vehicles were reported in the city from Jan. 1, 2005, to Aug. 8 of this year. Another 20 collisions occurred in Sedgwick County during the same period.
A June 16 crash on K-254 that paralyzed Spanish cyclist Diego Ballesteros from the waist down shows how devastating such collisions can be. Ballesteros was riding on the highway shoulder as part of a cross-country race when a 22-year-old Wichita driver apparently became distracted, veered off the road and struck him from behind about a quarter-mile west of the Butler County line.
Many local cyclists have ridden the same stretch of 254, including Claycomb and Johnson.
"It's just kind of scary when you're out on a road like that," Claycomb said. "A driver who takes their eye off the road can do a lot of serious damage to a bicyclist. I try not to think about how badly I can be hurt if someone runs over you."
Collisions: when and where
The police department's statistics show that bike-vehicle collisions can occur at any hour and place. However, there are a few patterns worth noting.
More than half of the accidents happened between 3 and 9 p.m., with the most dangerous period being from 5 to 6 p.m., when 48 collisions took place. The streets where the most collisions took place were, in descending order: Central, Harry, Douglas, Broadway and Seneca. Just more than half of the collisions occurred in or in the immediate vicinity of intersections. August saw more accidents than any other month.
One of those cyclists hit was Mike Marlett, who was commuting on his bicycle to work when the accident occurred. He'd made the trip nearly every day for a year. It didn't take much longer than driving, and he'd worked himself into good shape.
One morning in September 2009, Marlett said, he pushed the button on the pedestrian crosswalk at Woodlawn and Rockhill. One motorist roared through the intersection after the light changed, he said. Marlett avoided that vehicle, but not a car driven by an 89-year-old woman that barreled through the crossing and hit him. Marlett suffered six broken ribs, a broken shoulder blade, a partially collapsed lung, a punctured kidney, damage to a tendon in his leg and "massive amounts of bruises and scrapes."
The driver said she hadn't seen Marlett.
Derby teacher Jean Wiest, on the other hand, was struck from behind by a vehicle on a clear and sunny morning in June 2004, as she and a friend rode on Rock Road near Mulvane. The driver of the vehicle had just crested a hill. "By the time he noticed us, it was too late," said Wiest, who suffered a broken ankle, fibula and ribs, severe lacerations and other injuries.
Despite their experiences, both Marlett and Wiest are still riding.
"I don't want to let fear stop me from doing what I want to do," Wiest said.
Legal but obligated
So how can bicyclists and motorists avoid collisions?
Lt. Darras Delamaide of the Wichita police community affairs division said both parties have work to do.
"There seems to be, in some circles, a feeling that bikes should stay off the road," said Delamaide, who's a cyclist himself. "The fact is, legally, bikes have a right to be on the road."
"Conversely, bicyclists are obligated to obey all traffic signals, give signals of their intentions of turning and stopping, and maintain visibility and an awareness of the traffic around them."
If those two things would happen, Delamaide said, "There would be fewer accidents. I have no doubt."
A common violation by motorists is failing to completely change lanes before passing a cyclist who is using a lane, Delamaide said, while a common violation by cyclists is passing cars that are stopped at intersections.
Earlier this summer, the City Council approved changes in Wichita's bicycle ordinance that had been sought by cyclists. The old law said cyclists had to ride within 5 feet of a curb. Now they are only required to ride as close to the right side as "practicable" unless there is a useable bike path adjacent to the roadway, which is rare in Wichita.
Most cyclists say they believe they are more visible to drivers, and therefore less likely to be hit, when riding in the road rather than on a sidewalk, which they have to leave at cross streets. Some cyclists feel it's safer to pull close to the white line when there's traffic behind them, while others don't.
There's also considerable difference of opinion as to just how friendly Wichita is to bicyclists in general.
Ruth Holliday, owner of the Bicycle Pedaler shop, disagrees with those who say motorists here are more hostile than elsewhere. In fact, she's had customers come into her store from other states who say just the opposite.
"I think respect for each other" is the key, said Holliday, who's ridden 35 years without a collision. "I think if you treat them well, they'll treat you well."
She admitted, however, that on the day a reporter called, a motorist had shouted at her to "stay on the sidewalk" during her morning ride.
"Yeah, today I got yelled at for the first time in five or six years."
Wheel world safety tips
* Above all else, wear a helmet. "A helmet is the only reason I'm able to complete a sentence," says Mike Marlett, injured in a 2009 collision with a car. "Just think about your family," adds Jean Wiest, injured in a 2004 collision. "You could be disabled for life because of (not wearing) a helmet."
* Follow all traffic laws when riding bicycles on the street, from obeying lights and signs to signaling turns and not passing vehicles stopped at intersections. It's not just safer, it's the law. Wichita police write hundreds of citations to bicyclists each year, according to Lt. Darras Delamaide of the community affairs division.
* Make sure your bike and gear are in good working condition. Bicycle Pedaler owner Ruth Holliday recommends a 30-second check of helmet, brakes, tire pressure and wheel release mechanisms before starting out.
* Wear bright clothing.
* Install additional safety devices on your bike such as a mirror (helmet models are also popular), lights and reflectors.
* Ride defensively. Be aware of the position of the sun, hills, vegetation, structures, bends in the road and other things that can block motorists' vision. Try to make eye contact with motorists when crossing in front of them.
* Avoid peak traffic areas and times when possible, and make use of designated bike lanes, paths and sidewalks. There's a good map and list of bike paths at kansascyclist.com . Or go to www.wichita.gov/cityoffices and click on Park and Recreation, then Bicycling.
* In Wichita, it is legal to ride on sidewalks everywhere but in the central business district, which is bounded by Kellogg, Central, Washington and the Arkansas River.
For organized group road rides with experienced cyclists, see ozbikeclub.com.