We were deeply saddened to hear that a local bicyclist was hit from behind while cycling on Route 299 near Butterville Road on September 11.
According to police reports, Gaby O’Shea was heading westbound when she was struck by a car traveling in the same direction. Gaby was thrown off her bike and landed in the woods on the north side of Route 299. The driver initially fled the scene but later turned herself into the police. Gaby was airlifted to Westchester Medical Center, where she is being treated for swelling and bleeding in her brain and numerous broken bones including her ankles, elbows, vertebrae, two ribs and pelvis. Like everyone in the New Paltz community, we hope Gaby can make a full recovery from this horrific and violent incident.
Although we do not yet know why this driver smashed her car into Gaby, we do know that cyclists on 20-pound bikes are no match for motorists driving two-ton vehicles. We also know that while we cannot make cycling a totally risk-free activity there is so much more we can do to make it considerably safer. New Paltz and Ulster County have tremendous potential to be model communities for bicycling. Unfortunately, it sometimes takes tragedies like Gaby’s to awaken us to these possibilities. Here are some thoughts for us to consider as a community.
On a personal level, we can make sure that we never drive when we are distracted by cell phones or impaired by alcohol or drugs. When we are unable to focus fully on the road, we not only jeopardize the safety of pedestrians and cyclists, we also risk injuring other drivers, our passengers and ourselves.
In terms of road infrastructure, we can advocate for bicycle lanes and wider shoulders. Ulster County has recently put up signs, like the ones on Route 299, that alert motorists that bicyclists may be “in lane.” Such signs are a good start to raise more awareness, but they do not do anything to prevent motorists from crashing into cyclists from behind. However, if there had been a wide shoulder, or better yet, a protected or buffered bicycle lane on Route 299, then Gaby’s chances of being hit from behind would likely have been diminished.
At the state level, we should pressure our elected officials in the legislature to pass the three-foot safe-passing amendment. The current law requires drivers to maintain “a safe distance” when passing cyclists. Due to its vagueness, this rule is rarely enforced. If the three-foot passing rule were passed, and it was disseminated in a public-education campaign and included on motor vehicle tests, then crashes like the one that happened to Gaby would be in clear violation of the law. As it stands now, many vehicle-bicycle crashes are not prosecuted unless the driver was impaired.
Riding a bicycle is a truly joyful activity. It is something many of us learn to do and love when we are young, and it brings us back to that child-like happiness when we straddle a bike as adults. Unfortunately, we have heard from too many of our friends and neighbors that they would never ride a bicycle in and around New Paltz because they see it as too dangerous. For many, Gaby’s experience will further reinforce their notion that New Paltz is no place for biking.
However, we hope that her accident can galvanize the community to make New Paltz a safer and friendlier place for people of all ages to experience the joys of bicycling. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for a fully recovered Gaby to come back to a new and improved New Paltz? How awesome would it be if she could head out again one day on her bicycle knowing that a safe bicycling infrastructure is in place so that she (and other cyclists) will not have to relive her painful experience? If this is the type of New Paltz you would like to see, please express these thoughts to your local officials and help us make this a reality.
Chair, New Paltz Bicycle Pedestrian Committee