Gabriella O’Shea, who was nearly killed after being struck with an automobile while bicycling six years ago, is wondering why it’s not appreciably safer to ride a bicycle in New Paltz today. Speaking at the town council meeting on July 21, O’Shea expressed concerns about the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians generally, as well as raising questions about accessibility and safety at the Trans-Hudson property alongside the Thruway specifically.
O’Shea was hit with a car by Amy Ashkenas in the early evening of September 11, 2016. In a New Paltz Times article about the incident, it was reported that “witnesses said the driver exited her vehicle, walked back to the cyclist, then returned to her vehicle and fled;” O’Shea was lying in a heap off to the side of the road after having been thrown from the bicycle. Four surgeries, five years and many hours of treatment and therapy later, O’Shea is now legally blind, and possesses no visual memories from before the assault.
Since then, O’Shea has become an advocate for bicycle and pedestrian safety in the county, yet has endured the deaths of friends and family members who did not survive being struck by an automobile. In New Paltz, the section of Route 299 just west of Butterville Road where O’Shea was hit still has no shoulder. There’s a drop of several inches off the edge, prompting bicyclists to exercise the legal right to take the driving lane. Mike Hein, then the executive for the county, got the shoulders for part of 299 widened to considerable self-generated fanfare, but that work has never been extended far enough to the east to reach where O’Shea’s life was changed.
“Ulster County and New York roads are not safe for bicyclists and pedestrians,” O’Shea said, notwithstanding “complete streets” legislation that’s supposed to ensure all users of roads can do so safely.
O’Shea also raised concerns about the way the Empire State Trail may be routed through the Trans-Hudson Management property on the Putt Corners side of the Thruway. State transportation officials feel that it will be perfectly safe to put an entrance to this retail development from Route 299 that crosses the trail, and O’Shea is far from the only cycling advocate who would like to see some other alternatives. Specifically, O’Shea recommends applying for a Greenway grant to pay for a professional plan. Board members will be asked to accept an easement for this trail, and O’Shea wants the acceptance to hinge on a public process that could be included in the grant application.
Support for the “Idaho stop”
Council members would like to see a state law passed to legalize what’s called the “Idaho stop.” There’s a bill being considered in Albany that would allow for the behavior, which in the resolution town council members passed on July 21, is described thus: “A person operating a bicycle approaching a stop sign shall slow down and, if required for safety, stop before entering the intersection. After slowing to a reasonable speed or stopping, the person shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle and pedestrians if required, before proceeding. A person operating a bicycle approaching a steady red traffic-control signal shall stop before entering the intersection and shall yield to all other traffic. Once the person has stopped, the person may proceed through the steady red traffic-control signal with caution.”
Transportation officials cited in the resolution believe that this improves safety, in part by minimizing the chances of a cyclist being clipped by an inattentive driver turning a corner. Another consequence would be to address inequity in how tickets are written in some parts of the state: “the New York City Police Department wrote 35,000 moving violations to cyclists in 2019 — more than for trucks[sic] which figured in 43 of that year’s 220 road deaths.”
Authorization cyclist discretion in this manner is called an “Idaho stop” because this type of law was first passed in Idaho, in 1982; that state is ranked near the bottom for bicyclist deaths in recent years. The resolution in support of this legislation was passed unanimously.