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Cyclists raise safety concerns at City Council meeting, seek better way to protect people on roadways

March 15, 2018 GMT

As Dr. Carl Gable took the podium in the City Council chamber on Wednesday, the audience slowly rose behind him.

Men and women wearing colorful “Seniors On Bikes” shirts stood in the front row. Behind them, about 50 cyclists not in uniforms stood in quiet support, some holding signs reading “Assault is a crime” or “Scared to ride my bike in Santa Fe.”

“I am concerned about the safety of pedestrians and bicycle riders using the roads and paths in and around Santa Fe,” Gable told the council. “… We are doing poorly. There is low-hanging fruit, and your actions can improve the situation.”

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He went on to implore the mayor and City Council to work with groups such as the Bicycle Trails Advisory Committee and Bike Santa Fe to come up with a plan to better protect pedestrians and cyclists.

The rallying cry for action at City Hall was prompted by a string of incidents that have brought renewed attention to bike safety and compounded the frustration of local bicycling advocates.

A few weeks ago, a Seniors On Bikes group was riding on N.M. 41 south of Santa Fe when they were involved in what they say was a road-rage incident in which a driver sped by them, then reversed into the group. Several riders were injured, one severely.

The driver, Jacob Brown, denies culpability in the incident. He told The New Mexican that he reversed toward the riders but stopped his car and that the cyclists hit him.

The Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office was still investigating that incident Wednesday, spokesman Juan Ríos said. No criminal charges have been filed.

In another highly publicized crash late last year, international bicycling competitor Irena Ossola was severely injured when a driver turned in front of her on a street and she ran into his car. The driver, who said he didn’t see Ossola, was charged with careless driving and given unsupervised probation and fined.

Some cyclists are upset about what they consider lax punishment for errant drivers who can cause serious and possibly life-changing injuries.

“These drivers have no idea. The driver walks off, and you might as well have hit a signpost, let alone a live person,” said Jennifer Wellington, secretary for Bike Santa Fe.

Wellington suggested drivers who seriously hurt a cyclist at least have their license suspended. Others have suggested charges as serious as aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

During an interview at the council meeting, the acting chief of the Santa Fe Police Department, Andrew Padilla, pointed out that charging a driver with aggravated assault requires police to be able to prove the driver’s intention was to injure a cyclist and that it wasn’t just an accident.

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Ultimately, Padilla said, if officers gather information about what happened at the scene, an accused driver’s punishment is up to the courts.

Norman Aragon, who said he uses his bike to commute to and from work on nice days, said he tries to see the points of view of both the cyclists and the drivers using roadways.

As a cyclist, he thinks riding in Santa Fe can be scary and he is terrified of being hit by a distracted driver. On the other hand, Aragon said he has seen incidents in which cyclists cause traffic problems, for example, by not stopping at an intersection.

For the situation to get better, Aragon said, there needs to be education and awareness on both sides.

“The bikers have to be educated; the drivers have to be educated,” he said. “We’ve got to compromise. We’ve got to share the road.”

Contact Sami Edge at 505-986-3055 or sedge@sfnewmexican.com.