Distracted drivers, lame laws put onus on cyclists to look out for own safety

Every time one of my bicycles and I leave the driveway together, there’s a chance neither of us comes back in one piece.

Even in my quiet, residential neighborhood. The other day, I was approaching a two-way intersection, riding practically in the gutter, when a gardening truck made a right turn straight into my path.

I can’t say if the driver corrected his steering, because I wasn’t going to wait to find out. As soon as that grill pointed in my direction, I bunny-hopped onto the sidewalk and out of harm’s way.

No big deal, really. Just another close call in the life of a cyclist.

Patrick TeNyenhuis wasn’t as fortunate.

On the morning of April 20, the 49-year-old from Clovis was riding his normal fitness route, eastbound on Shaw Avenue toward Quail Lakes, when a Toyota sedan plowed into him from behind.

TeNyenhuis never saw the car coming. He never had a chance.

Any time a cyclist gets killed around here, regardless of the circumstances or who was at fault, I take it personally.

I take it personally because I know it could have been me.

This one struck especially close to home. TeNyenhuis and I are roughly the same age, and I know his brother-in-law. Plus, Patrick wasn’t out there on some spiffy $5,000 road bike with carbon wheels. He was riding a 20-year-old mountain bike. I have one just as old, purchased in 1990 with every last cent I had, hanging in the garage.

The thing that exasperated me (and many in the cycling community) about this incident was a poorly worded Clovis Police Department news release (based on incomplete information, it turns out) stating the motorist “accidentally bumped into” TeNyenhuis.

Curious choice of words, since TV news footage from the scene clearly shows severe damage to the left side of the car’s front bumper, hood and windshield.

So unless we’re suddenly in England, this was the furthest thing from an accidental bump. Rather, this was some schmuck who, while driving along the straightest of roads, managed to rear end a bicycle with the left side of their vehicle.

“The car was completely off the roadway when it struck the cyclist,” Clovis police Cpl. John Weaver said when I spoke to him earlier this week. The investigation, he added, has nearly concluded. Let’s hope justice is served.

To honor TeNyenhuis and others killed on local roadways while out riding, I joined about 350 cyclists Wednesday night in the Fresno-Clovis happening of a worldwide event called the Ride of Silence.

The purpose of the slow-paced, 9.11-mile ride across north Fresno, organizers said, was to make motorists more aware of our presence as well as their own legal obligation to share the streets with those of us on two wheels.

“The lesson that can come out of this is, No. 1, that motorists need to be more aware of bicyclists,” Fresno Cycling Club President Dennis Ball told The Bee’s Andrea Castillo. “We have a right to be on the road.”

Not to disagree with Ball, who is a good guy and great advocate for cycling, but I question how much those rights are really worth.

Especially when it comes to Assembly Bill 1371, the Three Feet for Safety Act. Passed in September 2014, the state law requires motorists to give cyclists 3 feet of space when passing.

Sounds good, right? Curious, I asked local law enforcement how many citations had been issued for violations of the “3-foot law” since its inception.

The answer? In all likelihood, zero.

To be specific, Clovis police have never issued a “3-foot law” citation, Weaver said. Meanwhile, Fresno police Capt. Andy Hall told me via email he doesn’t think any have been issued.

“We have not issued any citations, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t stopped people and talked to them,” said Weaver, who heads Clovis’ traffic unit.

Considering how difficult the law is to enforce, this should not be the least bit surprising. Unless the officer is an eyewitness, and has a measuring tape, proving a violation had occurred would seem like a near-impossibility.

My point is that cyclists should not rely on laws to protect them – or even motorists to see them. Not if we want to stay upright.

The way I see it, the biggest problem isn’t drivers who are unaware of cyclists’ rights or treat them with contempt. It’s drivers who are distracted from texting, tweeting, FaceTiming (yes, I’ve seen it) and checking their GPS – drivers who pay as much attention to their cellphones as they do to the road.

“I can pull up at a light next to five people,” said Kevin Mahan, a Clovis bike commuter who has taken to wearing a GoPro on his helmet after three collisions with cars, “and I’ll look over and see four of them dinking on their phones.”

The term “defensive driving” is commonly used in drivers ed. The way I see it, cyclists should take this a step further and adopt a stance of “paranoid driving.”

What does “paranoid driving” mean? It means never assume a motorist sees you. Heck, don’t assume they’re even looking.

It means whenever a cyclist approaches an intersection or passes a parking lot, it’s up to us to be attuned to every possible direction from which a car could be coming. It means being on high alert at all times, constantly aware of your surroundings and potential threats.

Is all that really necessary? It is if you and your bicycle want to make it home in one piece.

And as we’ve seen too many times, even that’s no guarantee.