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July 26, 2021

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Efforts to protect bicyclists gain traction after tragedy near Searchlight

Cycling Safety

Steve Marcus

A cyclist heads toward Las Vegas on Highway 159 near the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021.

Cycling Safety

A group of cyclists ride on Highway 159 toward the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021. Launch slideshow »

Before Alan Snel goes on a bicycle ride in Las Vegas, he remembers to make his bed.

His reasoning: If he were to get hit again by a passing vehicle during one of his outings, he wouldn’t want to burden his sister with tidying up his place.

Snel was nearly killed in 2017 in Florida when the bike he was riding was hit by the distracted driver in a Chevrolet Cruz traveling 45 mph. The impact threw Snel onto the car’s windshield and left him unresponsive on the side of the road and with two broken vertebrae, a concussion and serious leg bruising.

“It wouldn’t be uncommon for a lot of cyclists to be killed under those circumstances,” said Snel, who has written two books on his experiences cycling across the U.S. and who rides 15 to 40 miles most days.

Yet, when he returned to riding about two months later, he reasoned that the indescribable feeling of the fresh air on his face outweighed the risk of being hit again. More important, the crash invigorated his push for bicycle safety, an advocacy mission that has intensified after a box truck driver accused of being high on methamphetamine smashed into a group of bicyclists in December on a two-lane portion of U.S. 95 near Searchlight. Five of the cyclists were killed.

“If someone is going 60 mph, that’s about 100 feet per second,” said David Swallow, deputy CEO with the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada. “So think, if someone gets hit, if it had just been a one-second difference, they would have never been hit, there would have been no tragedy. It’s all a matter of people paying attention each and every second.”

Local officials and cyclists agree that more can be done to educate the public about bike safety, beginning with the “move over law.” Motorists and bicyclists have the same rights to the road, so it’s important drivers move over and give bikes room, just as they would for any other vehicle. And it’s not just common courtesy, it’s the law.

In the aftermath of the tragedy near Searchlight, the move-over efforts have been amplified. An awareness campaign — “Change Lanes for Bikes. It’s the Law!” — launched last month with messages on social media, billboards and public service announcements.

Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones keeps a “ghost bike” — a white-painted frame that honors cyclists who’ve lost their lives — in his office to remind him about the “dangers riders face on the road.”

Jones says infrastructure decisions in Southern Nevada need to be made with more than just motor vehicles in mind.

“We have to rethink our obsession with just building roads wider and only accommodating vehicle traffic,” said Jones, who advocates for more protected bike lanes and safe shared-use paths. 

Bicyclists also pay taxes that go toward the roads everyone uses. It’s not just gasoline taxes that pay for the streets.

He echoes Snel’s recommendation that motorists receive more training and continued education. Something as simple as “better signage” can help make a difference, said Jones, noting that officials have found that language such as “cyclists can use full lane” is more effective than “share the road.”

“We have some good laws on the books ... but I don’t think many people are familiar with them,” Jones said. 

He loves cycling and has ridden for 15 years, when he replaced running with pedaling.

Jones, who also serves on the RTC board, introduced an item Tuesday for the county commission to institute “recommendations and best practices when it comes to multimodal transportation.”

Click to enlarge photo

Alan Snel

Under the proposal, cyclists must stay to the right of the road except when going the speed limit, turning left, passing a fixed object or when the right side is unsafe. Jones said the proposal, which is expected to be discussed at a public hearing on Feb. 16, is designed to give cyclists a safe option to get around obstacles or make a left turn.

The bottom line, as witnessed by the tragedy near Searchlight, is cyclists are vulnerable. 

“Obviously, the recent tragic death of five individuals really forced all of us to take a look at what the things that are most effective at ensuring that cyclists are safe, and this really was a primary issue and something we could do at the county level,” Jones said.

One of just a few positive aspects about the pandemic, he said, was a rise in interest for cycling. He cited the bike share program in downtown Las Vegas running at capacity and the groups of cyclists riding on the Strip when the resorts shut down.

Additionally, the city of Las Vegas’ 2050 Master Plan will also include a greater emphasis on multimodal transit, including cycling.

“I think we’ve got to keep that perspective and movement going into the future,” Jones said. “To make sure that we provide even more safe opportunities.” 

Keely Brooks, president of the Southern Nevada Bicycle Coalition, was friends with one of the cyclists killed — they rode together the weekend before the catastrophic accident. She said efforts aimed at making the roads safer for bicyclists, while improving, still haven’t taken hold.

“The tragedy that occurred on Dec. 10 just threw a sharp, striking light on the fact that we’re not there yet,” she said.

The coalition weighs in on the RTC’s bike and pedestrian safety plans in the community, and communicates with riders on a variety of construction projects across the valley where the dangers are enhanced for riders. It is also pushing for home developers to include bike lanes whenever they build new housing.

The commission’s Regional Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan for Southern Nevada in 2017 recommended building 1,336 more biking and walking facilities, a 133% increase. And a Nevada law passed in 2011 requires cars to give cyclists at least 3 feet of space and, when possible, move over another lane to the left when passing a cyclist, or at least slow down.

“There is some good stuff,” Snel said about Southern Nevada’s bicycling infrastructure. “There’s some average stuff, there are also some very dangerous settings.”

Snel would like to see more bike-designated paths, such as trails, which are separated from car traffic. He would also like more stringent bike safety qualifications to obtain or renew a driver’s license. 

Snel referenced the River Mountain Moot Trail, a 34-mile-long recreational path that extends through Henderson, Boulder City and the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. The project, which is also used by runners and families out for a walk, came together in collaboration among local governments and the federal government, Snel said. 

“You can use the same approach to link up paved trails through the entire metro Las Vegas area,” he said.

Swallow, RTC’s deputy CEO, touted some of the progress in the cycling infrastructure, highlighting the implementation of wide bus lanes bicyclists could use, such as on Sahara Avenue. He said bus drivers now receive training on how to share the road.

“We often think of roadways as being built for cars,” said Swallow, who has more than 25 years of experience as a civil engineer. “But really, it’s built for people, and whether you’re driving, walking, biking, taking transit, everybody’s trying to go somewhere and the roadway is the conduit.”

Regardless of engineering innovation, public safety rests on the public’s will for “common courtesy” and following the rules of the road, he said.

Swallow gave an example of a motorist passing a cyclist, not putting into account the number of things that could happen in a second: What happens if the cyclist suddenly falls?

Eradicating the road carnage must be done in collaboration. “It’s not just one campaign, it needs to come from all sides,” Swallow said.

Cyclists and pedestrians who lose their lives need to be humanized. At least 697 cyclists were killed in the U.S. in 2020, according to bikemaps.org data interpreted by Outside Magazine.

“They’re not numbers, they’re people,” Swallow said. “It’s not a bicyclist, it’s a person riding a bike. It’s not a pedestrian, it’s a person walking.”

Similarly, cyclists shouldn’t always assume that motorists can see them, even when they have proper safety equipment.

He mentioned riding at night one time and a motorist pulling up next to him at a stoplight, letting him know that she couldn’t see him. He then upped his safety gadgets.

“We’re all trying to get somewhere, but we are one community. Let’s look out for each other and try to get there together,” Swallow said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.