Almost a year to the hour after Gabriella O’Shea was hurled into a ditch after being struck on her bicycle in New Paltz by a driver who fled the scene on September 11, 2016, she took her first ride back to the spot where her life was irrevocably changed. This time, rather than being abandoned to her fate by a stranger, she was in the company of at least 125 supportive community members who share her desire to make roads more equitable places to travel.
The ride began in the newly car-free section of Huguenot Street, but some of the participants came by way of North Putt Corners Road, where Hannah George was struck by a motor vehicle earlier this year. Among that smaller group was Michael Reade, president of the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail Association, who was himself struck by a vehicle on September 2. The route went out along Route 299 to where O’Shea was struck, looping back past Wallkill View Farms, where riders stopped to acknowledge the spot where another New Paltz resident, Abby Chance, was thrown from her bicycle in an incident which has been described as traffic-related, although it did not result from an actual crash. The six-mile ride ended at Water Street Market, where O’Shea and others spoke and petitions to improve road safety were passed out.
Expanded shoulders have been built along part of Route 299 since O’Shea’s crash, but somewhat ironically they stop just short of where she was hit by Butterville Road. County Executive Michael Hein has promised to extend them all the way to the road’s end at Route 44-55, but the project is stalled as easements are negotiated with landowners. Keeping the pressure on Hein and other county officials is one of the top priorities of these local riders.
Another is getting the “three-foot rule” passed into law. The first state law to even acknowledge the rights of cyclists to occupy the lane was passed in 2010; it requires drivers to pass cyclists at a safe distance without defining that term. Advocates are pushing to specify it as three feet, but the bill is stalled in a state assembly committee. According to Tom Polk, regional education coordinator of the New York Bicycling Coalition, 30 states and the District of Columbia now have laws specifying a passing distance is at least three feet.
Christian Avila said he joined the ride because of what he called “inequitable momentum” on the roads, with users not being sufficiently concerned about the well-being of others. As a bike messenger in New York City, Avila said he felt safer than riding in this area where he’s now returned to live because like O’Shea, he would be dependent upon someone finding him if the worst happened.
“The roads need to be safer,” said Donna Bruschi, and rides such as this raise awareness and keep that conversation going. “Bicyclists are entitled to the full lane,” she said, which is something all drivers learn studying for their permit, but “nobody remembers.”
When he first moved to New Paltz, Kevin Caskey estimates that 90% of his riding was on roads, but that’s dropped to less than half in part because “299 is nasty.” Getting shoulders on that road is one of his priorities, as is raising awareness in general. He supports the three-foot rule, and cited as evidence the trucks driven by tradesmen. “I don’t think they are aware how far out their right mirrors go,” he said, and how even without malice intended they can make a cyclist feel quite unsafe.
Terry Condon won’t even ride in New Paltz because she feels unsafe, but attended the kick-off to show her support for those who choose to. “I had a good friend killed on a bike,” she said, and wants to see changes that make conditions safer.
Judy Reichler served on the bicycle-pedestrian committee, and feels that while new trails are helpful in one sense, they also might give a “false sense of entitlement” to riders, because there’s less of a need for constant awareness. She recalls that one year ago she was driving westbound not far from where O’Shea was struck, and was completely blinded by the sun coming around a turn. “I can see how easy it could be to hit somebody in the glare,” she said. Reichler did not, however, express understanding as to why a driver might leave the scene after such a crash.
“I may be the oldest on this ride,” said Judy Mage, who is 82 and has been on a bicycle since she was six. “My role is to make the roads safe.”
O’Shea received a warm welcome when she rose to speak after the ride. She demonstrated the boundless optimism which is her trademark with her remarks. “This day last year, I had a terrible experience,” she said. “I remember nothing of the crash,” she continued, using the word which experts now say should replace “accident” in common parlance, because accident implies something unavoidable; nearly all such incidents are not. She spent three months in hospitals and has been working hard on recovering since, she explained, and what’s stuck with her is the incredible support from community members. “Our love is with you forever,” she told those crowded around her.
While no information has been released about what caused Amy Ashkenas to strike O’Shea last September 11, many of the riders observed that drivers are more distracted in recent years by technology in particular. Distributing “share the road” bumper stickers is one way to raise awareness about these issues, but distraction continues to be a concern even though texting while driving now can result in five points on one’s license.