More cyclists spinning their wheels safely on the Vineyard

A bike path along Sengekontacket Pond provides a scenic experience. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

There are more bicycles and cyclists on the Vineyard this year than ever before, without an increase in the number of bicycle accidents. The anecdotal evidence is in, backed up by some real data.

The Steamship Authority reports that the number of bicycles riding their ferries to the Vineyard has increased since 2007. Figures through July since 2007 show a substantial increase in traffic. There were 7,644 bicycles in July 2007, 8,870 last year, and 9,468 this year, 2012. There were a total of 14,879 bicycles on the ferries in 2007 and 16,684 in 2011.

Even so, the number of bicycle accidents is down. Figures from Major Susan Schofield, communications center supervisor at the Dukes County Sheriff’s Communications Center, show that accidents involving bicycles reported to 911 are down substantially this year. There was a high of 46 accidents in 2011 and only 8 through August 15, this year. Between 2007 and 2010 there were 23, 25, 20, 30 reported accidents, respectively.

Frank Jennings is in a position to know about the numbers of riders. He owns Edgartown Cycle and has been a competitive cyclist since the early seventies. He rides his bike here on the Island as much as 200 miles a week, and he has noticed an increase in the numbers of cyclists on the road and on the bike paths.

“Just look at the number of cars with racks carrying four or five bicycles coming off the ferries,” he said. A lot of those bikes end up in his shop for repairs and tune-ups. “We have three full-time bike mechanics this year, the most we have ever had.” Sales of new bikes have been steady at Edgartown Bicycles, and bike rentals have increased this year, according to Mr. Jennings.

Cody Brooke, Edgartown Bicycles rental manager, said that his company has the same number of bikes to rent as last year, but they have been “making positive changes that have resulted in a smoother operation so we are turning them around faster and renting to more people.” Mr. Brooke said that there have been only two accidents on their bikes this summer, and neither required medical care. “Just a little road rash,” he said, although one of the bikes had to be taken off the road.

Bob Breth, owner of Martha’s Bicycle Rentals, with shops in Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven, said his sales are up.

“It has been a good summer so far,” and, he says, his customers seldom have accidents. He credits the low accident rate to not renting to people who are noticeably uncomfortable on a bike. “We have lost business from entire families because we won’t let one of them on one of our bikes.”

He added that he has seen families put a non-rider on a bus while the rest rode bikes. Mr. Breth said he thinks keeping his bikes in top condition makes them safer. “We also encourage our riders to wear helmets, and sixteen year olds and under have to wear helmets; it’s the law.”

Vineyard Haven fire Chief John Schilling, who has ridden for decades and rides from Tisbury to Aquinnah at least once a week, said that he has noticed more riders this year and more riders riding in larger groups, which he thinks leads to safer riding and greater motorist awareness. Mr. Schilling said that the more riders there are, the more cyclists and motorists have to work together.

Mr. Schilling rode almost 200 miles over two very hot days in the Pan Mass Challenge, a fundraising ride across Massachusetts three weeks ago. He said he thinks it is a “real positive sign that the State Police had posted signs along the route that said ‘Same road, same rules, same rights.’ The new law has made a real difference.”

Bill Brown, another longtime rider, also of Vineyard Haven, said that he has noticed many more riders, often in groups of five or six. He pointed out that the recent changes in state laws, which give bicycles riders the same rights and responsibilities as motorists, have been good. He noted that it is now legal for cyclists to ride two abreast as long as it does not impede the flow of traffic.

Recently there have been only limited improvements to the bike paths, which need repair in spots, but that is not because of the work of Peg Regan, program director for Mass in Motion-MV, a state-financed Island effort to improve public health. She has been working with Island groups to identify bike path problems, to push for better road markings and road signs, and to urge the creation of new bike lanes to make it easier and safer for people to use their bikes.

Long time rider Neila Decker, who is often on her bike six days a week, has ridden regularly since she was 16. She is now 50-something. She has also noticed an increase in bicycle riders, and that causes her some concern. “We need more bike routes with better signs and road markings,” she said. “I worry about people coming off of the boat in Vineyard Haven on bicycles. Where should they go?” She said that signs point cyclists headed up-Island around Veteran’s Park before “dumping them out onto the Edgartown Road. It isn’t safe.”

State bicycle law

By state law, bicyclists have the same rights and responsibilities on a public way as any other vehicle. It is the responsibility of the passing vehicle to pass any other vehicle, including a bike, safely and responsibly. Bicycle riders are generally prohibited from sidewalks.

The Bicyclist Safety Bill became law on January 15, 2009. According to the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition (MassBike), a group that promotes bicycling, the new law adds police training on bicycle law and dangerous behavior by bicyclists and motorists. It explains how a motorist should safely pass a bicycle and explains how a motorist should safely make a turn in front of a bicycle. The law makes “dooring” (opening a car door into the path of a bicycle or other vehicle) subject to ticket and fine and permits bicyclists to ride two abreast when it does not impede cars from passing. It also adds legal protections for bicyclists who choose to ride to the right of other traffic on the road.

Rules of the road and safe bicycling tips from the National Highway Traffic Administration.

• Wear a properly fitted bicycle helmet. Protect your brain, save your life.

• Adjust your bicycle to fit.

• Check your equipment. Before riding, inflate tires properly and check the brakes.

• See and be seen. Wear bright colors when riding day or night.

• Control your bicycle. Always ride with at least one hand on the handlebars. Carry books and other items in a bicycle carrier or backpack.

• Watch for and avoid road hazards.

• Avoid riding at night.

• Go with the traffic flow. Ride on the right in the same direction as other vehicles.

• Obey all traffic laws. A bicycle is a vehicle and you’re a driver.

• Yield to traffic and pedestrians when appropriate.

• Be predictable. Ride in a straight line, not in and out of cars. Signal your moves.

• Stay alert at all times

• Look and signal before turning.

• Watch for parked cars. Be alert for doors opening or cars pulling out.

The safest place for bicycle riding is on the street, where bicycles are expected to follow the same rules of the road as motorists and ride in the same direction.