Five Tips for Cycling Safely in Morgantown

Gunnar Shogren works on a bicycle at Pathfinder in Morgantown, W.Va. Shogren is a long-time cyclist who used to race professionally, and still competes in his spare time.

As the situation with traffic and congestion in Morgantown continues to grow, alternatives to driving become more attractive options for getting around the city. One solution is the use of bicycles to get around town. The Morgantown Bicycle Board aims to get 5 percent of the commuting population on bikes by 2020. Although it’s hard to dispute the positive health benefits of cycling, there are some risks involved. Between 2008 and 2015, there were 18 reported accidents in Morgantown according to Frank Gmeindl, former chair of the Board. The number is likely higher, but not all bicycle accidents get reported, so we may never know the true numbers.

While at times accidents are unavoidable, there are many ways to reduce the likelihood of getting into serious accidents or sustaining major injuries. Here are five tips to make cycling less risky.

  • Wear a helmet:

Cyclists in Morgantown must wear helmets by city law. Cyclists without a helmet can be punished with a $50 dollar fine according to Chip Wamsley, vice-chair of the Morgantown Bicycle Board and owner of Wamsley Cycles.

Aside from the potential penalties of non-compliance, wearing a helmet can make a major difference in the severity of injuries sustained in accidents. A study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology in 2017 by Jake Olivier and Prudence Creighton showed that helmets can significantly reduce the chances of many different types of injuries.

The study found:

“Helmet use is associated with odds reductions of 51 percent for head injury, 69 percent for serious head injury, 33 percent for face injury and 65 percent for fatal head injury.”

  • Check your bike before every ride:

With all the necessary safety gear on, the next thing you should be careful of is making sure your bicycle is in safe operating condition. Gmeindl recommends that you check your bike before every ride. He uses what he calls an ABC Quick Check.

“A: Be sure the tires are properly inflated. B: Make sure the brakes are working properly. C: Make sure the chain and gears are running smoothly.” Gmeindl said, “Before going out in traffic, ride the bike around and look for anything loose and listen for anything rattling.”

In Morgantown, there are two places to get your bike checked and get routine maintenance done. The shops are Wamsley Cycles and Pathfinder.

In the video below Gunnar Shogren, an employee at Pathfinder, talks about his long-time love of cycling.

  • Don’t ride on the sidewalk:

When riding, it is much safer for cyclists to ride on the road or in bicycle lanes as opposed to riding on the sidewalk. Riding on the sidewalk increases the risk for injury, not only to cyclists, but also to pedestrians and motor vehicles.

“Bicycling on sidewalks is especially dangerous where bicyclists cross driveways or merge from the sidewalk into the roadway,” Gmeindl said. “The problem is that motorists are not looking for bicyclists on sidewalks.”

Cyclists riding on sidewalks, where there are entrances to businesses where cars pull in, cause a lot of accidents in Morgantown, according to Wamsley.

“There’s a BP station right down the street from us [at Wamsley Cycles], and walking down there to get cream for my coffee, I’ve seen that several times,” Wamsley said.

According to a study by the Bicycle Board, of all reported bicycle accidents in Morgantown between 2008 and 2015, six out of eight of the reported accidents, where the bicyclist was at fault, involved the cyclist riding on the sidewalk.

Currently, riding a bicycle on a sidewalk in business districts is illegal in Morgantown, according to Morgantown City Code.

  • Be visible and predictable:

Being visible and predictable are other important parts of safe cycling. When drivers can account for your location and your movement, they’re less likely to hit you.

Gmeindl emphasizes the importance of those two things in order to avoid accidents with cars.

“Being visible and predictable are the most important cycling behaviors to avoid collisions with motor vehicles. Being visible doesn’t just mean wearing bright clothing and using headlights and taillights at night. Being visible means being where you can be seen. Being predictable means doing what’s expected such as stopping for red lights and stop signs, signaling turns, and yielding when you don’t have the right of way,” Gmeindl said.

Being predictable while cycling means behaving as a motorist would, according to Marilyn Newcome, former bicycle safety instructor at West Virginia University. She recommends cyclists ride in the center of the lane to maximize their visibility, and always signal before they turn, so their movements will obvious to drivers.

“Act predictable. Consider yourself a driver of a car,” Newcome said.

Not only is it safer for both motorists and cyclists for cyclists to ride as if they were cars, but according to the Morgantown City Code, cyclists have the same rights and responsibilities as motorists when using the road.

Another aspect of visibility is signaling to pedestrians when passing. Newcome recommends cyclists on trails alert pedestrians by yelling out or ring a bicycle bell when they are about to pass pedestrians. She also recommends only passing pedestrians on the left.

  • Be aware of bicyclists when you are driving:

On the other end of the spectrum there are things motorists can do for their part in preventing collisions with cyclists. The first tip would be to be aware if there are bicyclists nearby and to adjust your driving accordingly. Bicyclists will likely be moving more slowly, and drivers should be patient and anticipate turns.

Secondly, motorists should be careful to not be distracted while driving, as that greatly increases the risk of not seeing a cyclist until it’s too late.

“Distracted drivers are usually the main reason cyclists get hit by cars,” Newcome said.

Another recommendation for drivers is to watch the distance between themselves and bicycles. In Morgantown, the law states that motorists must give cyclists a distance of at least three feet before passing them, according to Newcome.

The map below shows the reported bicycle accidents in Morgantown from 2008 to 2015. It shows the location of the accident and who was responsible. The data was compiled by Gmeindl for the Bicycle Board.

The Bicycle Board has been working on several projects in order to make the city more friendly to cyclists. The city was rated a bronze level bicycle friendly city by the League of American Cyclists in 2012 and 2016. The Bicycle Board has crafted a bicycle plan to improve the bicycle-friendliness of the city. The goal of the plan is to increase the use of bicycles by residents, and it aims to achieve that goal by increasing education for cyclists, increasing the enforcement of traffic laws, providing amenities for cyclists, and removing impediments for cyclists on roads. They Board is also working on projects such as a protected bicycle lane that will stretch from the Mileground roundabout to Willowdale road, according to Wamsley.

Text, video and graphics by Moe Hasan.