Gabriella O’Shea still can’t ride a bicycle on her own, but she’s healed enough that she’s ready to speak out about the dangers faced by anyone who pedals along the roads. When Hannah George first started talking publicly about being hit by a car in March, her voice broke. Now it carries a steadiness that reflects her determination to see bicycle safety treated as a top priority in New Paltz, Ulster County and beyond. The two women have joined forces to build a coalition to see that vision through.
The journey for O’Shea has been a longer and harder one. She was struck from behind by a driver who left the scene, but later turned herself in. O’Shea’s injuries were extensive, and she spent months at Helen Hayes Rehabilitation Hospital. Her recovery is not yet complete, either: there are short-term memory and balance issues to contend with; her peripheral vision is now severely curtailed, as well. The positive attitude with which she has decided to tackle these challenges shines through, though, in her smile, the light in her eyes, and way she relates to her fellow human beings.
“I can finally feel my memory improving,” she said while sipping a hot beverage at the Mudd Puddle. Recalling the difficulty she had recognizing her own mother, Blanca Babits, she called that period “horrendous,” describing it as the “most difficult” part of her recovery. Much of the past is “incredibly vague and absent” from her mind, which she said is “so sad; I have done so much in my life” which she cannot yet recall, including working and traveling in Italy and Japan. “Even a few days ago is vague,” she said, but “to lose your life is very difficult.” O’Shea’s optimism comes through in the faith she holds that she may yet regain those memories.
O’Shea described gratitude that the crash left her not only alive, but with all her limbs and teeth intact. Though she is “happy every day,” she admitted that “moments of sadness come over me.” Still, she would not undo that fateful moment last September 11, because it’s now “just part of my life.”
As for Amy Ashkenas, the woman who was driving the car that struck her, O’Shea showed nothing but compassion. “I hope she’s doing well,” she said. “I’m sure it’s very difficult.” However, she points out that “my life is not her life,” and O’Shea herself has decided to stay positive and focused on moving that life forward again. Moving in a literal sense is still tentative for this woman who once danced with the Vanaver Caravan.
It may be that what most lifts O’Shea’s spirits is the outpouring of support she has received from members of the New Paltz community. She has been awash in that love, calling it “beautiful” and expressing hope that it continues.
Unlike O’Shea, George sustained only minor physical injuries when she was struck in March by a driver when she signaled and attempted a left turn into her driveway. Mindful of O’Shea’s plight, George realized that bicycle safety is a real issue locally. She has spoken to members of the New Paltz Town Board and bicycle-pedestrian committee, and has also made bumper stickers reminding other drivers to “share the road” with bicyclists, as the law requires. After her story was covered in the New Paltz Times, the two women connected and decided to work together.
“Riding on roads is dangerous,” O’Shea said, but perhaps it shouldn’t be as dangerous as it is. George’s stickers are a good start, because “you will see, and remember, that [bicyclists] have a right to be on this road.”
Awareness is just one step, though. The awareness around bicycle safety spiked after O’Shea was hit, and keeping that interest high is a priority. Soon after that accident, county workers put six-foot shoulders along Route 299 from the Carmine Liberta Bridge to Butterville Road. As O’Shea’s father Stephen pointed out, his daughter was struck just past Butterville, where cyclists still must straddle the white line if they dare to take that route. Ensuring that County Executive Mike Hein keeps his promise to extend those wider shoulders to the west end of Route 44/55 in Gardiner is one goal they have set for themselves. Over 2,000 people signed a petition last fall asking for that project to be seen through, and they are encouraging people to write Hein letters as well.
“We want him to complete the job,” said O’Shea. “He agreed to expand the shoulders, and we will hold him to that.”
George says that completing that stretch carries symbolism, as well: “Gaby’s a climber,” like many other active local cyclists, and “this would be getting her back to the cliffs. A lot of people want to bike to the mountain.”
Just a wider shoulder, though, is a “bare minimum” for safety. For truly complete streets, they want to see dedicated bicycle lanes that are separated by barriers, giving bicyclists a “legal space” in which to travel.
She and George plan on attending the Ride of Silence at Dietz Stadium in Kingston on May 17, which is to honor those hurt or killed while cycling. While she cannot ride on her own, if she’s able to obtain a tandem bicycle she could join in with a partner. “It’s really just the beginning” of activism around this issue, she said; she and George want to build a “broader coalition of cyclists” to make sure safety issues are addressed. “There’s so much to do.”
“It’s not hard to find allies in this community,” O’Shea agreed. “We will take help from all who are willing.”
Indeed, members of the joint village-town bicycle-pedestrian committee (BPC) are certainly of a like mind. Independent of the efforts of George and O’Shea, they are inviting residents concerned about bicycle safety to their next meeting, on May 22 at 7 p.m. in the village hall. “We know from cycling that the power of the group dwarfs that of a single rider,” they said in a released statement. “What the BPC is trying to do is to build a coalition so that we can network, mobilize, and ultimately use our collective pedal power for progressive policy changes at the local, regional and state-wide level.”
Widening shoulders may take constant pressure to accomplish, but it’s still easier than lowering speed limits, especially on state-controlled roads. A consensus that the speed on Route 299 west of the Wallkill should be lowered to 45 mph seemed to emerge during deliberations over the Mohonk Foothills project which wrapped up last year, but that request must be passed up through several levels of government before being ruled on by state transportation officials. Seeing that through is also on the list. There’s also the “20’s plenty campaign,” a movement in the United Kingdom to ratchet automobile speeds down even more in congested areas, such as village cores. Bringing that state-wide is another possibility they’re considering.
This growing coalition may also join existing efforts, such as the statewide campaign to mandate a three-foot clearance when passing a bicyclist in a motor vehicle. If there’s not enough room, don’t pass. “It’s to dissuade drivers from being irresponsible,” George said.
For Stephen O’Shea, an important point to remember is that bicycles are not simply recreational vehicles. Efforts to reduce greenhouse gases rely in part on convincing people to use them for travel, which means taking the roads that will get them to their destinations. That’s not always going to be the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail or another car-free route.
Keeping up the interest and the energy is vital to people who have been personally impacted by bicycle-car conflicts. “Please do not stop” speaking out, pleaded Babits. “There is no change for the victims. It is a very slow process.”
Coalition activities will certainly include letter-writing campaigns and other forms of advocacy, but also efforts to build community and raise visibility of cyclists such as community rides for all who wish to join, “no matter how fast or slow,” explained George, “from little kids to grandmothers.”
“I will advocate for this for the rest of my life,” said George. “I’m gearing up for the long haul.”