From all accounts, Emilee Gagnon was doing everything that a bicyclist is supposed to do.
The 21-year-old Massachusetts woman had her loaded touring bike near the road’s edge as she pedaled west on State Rt. 163 in Ottawa County’s Clay Township on Sept. 23.
But just west of Nissen Road, the recent college graduate was struck from behind by a westbound sport utility vehicle going at least 55 mph.
The bike, according to one witness who passed Miss Gagnon seconds before the crash, was on the paved berm, right of the white edge line.
Lynne Smith, the SUV’s driver, told troopers glare from the early-fall sun setting directly on the road’s horizon had blinded her to the point that she could not see the bicyclist.
Ms. Smith, 49, of Martin, Ohio, pleaded no contest on April 30 to misdemeanor vehicular homicide. She will be sentenced June 3 in Ottawa County Municipal Court.
Across Ohio and the country, May is Bike Month, and it’s a month during which bicycling advocates push awareness, safety, and the need for bike riders to respect drivers and motorists to respect bicyclists.
Miss Gagnon was one of two bike fatalities last year in Ottawa County. Both she and another bicyclist, Dale Tusen, were wearing helmets.
Mr. Tusen, 39, died after being struck from behind by a car July 23 while riding in the dark on Wilcox Road near Port Clinton. His bicycle was not equipped with lights or reflectors when he was hit at 5:37 a.m., about 45 minutes before sunrise.
Lt. Anthony DeChoudens, commander of the Ohio Highway Patrol post in Sandusky, said the fatalities show that bicycling, though the simplest form of transportation, can be the most dangerous.
“Motorists in the summertime, when more bicycles are on the road, have to be cognizant of bicycle riders, especially during adverse conditions, whether it be the sun or rain. You have to be able to adjust your driving to meet those conditions,” he said.
Ohio law requires that bicyclists riding at night must have a working front lamp on their bikes or helmets, and a rear light that emits a flashing or steady red light visible to motorists.
The nighttime devices are among Ohio’s legal requirements for riding on streets and highways, which grant bicyclists all the rights and obligations applicable to motor-vehicle drivers, including the risk of citations for moving violations.
They must travel in the same direction as street traffic, obey traffic signals and signs, and use their hands to signal intent to turn left or right.
The law requires bicyclists to ride as near to the right side of the road as safely possible, although two riders may ride abreast as long as they don’t impede other vehicles.
Bicycles also must be equipped with a brake or brakes.
A proposed law that would require motor vehicles to remain at 3 three feet away while passing a bicyclist is currently in an Ohio House of Representatives committee. Existing state laws requires vehicles to pass bicyclists at a “safe distance,” though an actual measurement is not defined.
Twenty-one other states have 3-foot clearance laws on the books, and the cities of Toledo, Cleveland, and Cincinnati have adopted their own ordinances for 3-foot separation from bicycles. Pennsylvania has a 4-foot passing law.
The bill would also give bike riders equal status with motor vehicles stopped at traffic lights to proceed through intersections, yielding to others, if vehicle detectors malfunction.
Chuck Smith, president of the Ohio Bicycle Federation, said the bill would make it easier for cyclists to pass through intersections without pedestrian or properly functioning detectors.
“We are seeing more and more support for the law. We have obtained electronic signatures from more than a thousand cyclists who favor the bill,” he said.
Miss Gagnon of Holliston, Mass., a recent graduate of Westfield (Mass.) State University, was riding her bicycle alone to San Francisco to raise money for multiple-sclerosis research.
Her father, John Gagnon, said she had battled cancer after a mass had been found on her ovary when she was 13, and she made it through rounds of chemotherapy over the following several years.
The idea of her trip to support MS, he said, was because her maternal grandfather, Gerald Osmer of Kent, England, had lived with the disease.
He died Jan. 18, exactly a month after what would have been his granddaughter’s 22nd birthday, Mr. Gagnon said.
Miss Gagnon had taken off from Holliston on July 27 and went north to New Hampshire, where she visited friends. Mr. Gagnon and his wife, Celia, said they had urged their daughter against such a grueling tour alone, and even thought she might give up and return home as she headed south days later and passed near Holliston before heading west.
“We didn’t want her to go. She knew we didn’t want her to go. She was strong-willed. She was very determined,” he said.
Postings on her Tumblr account showed photos from stops in New York, New Jersey, Washington, and Philadelphia. Each day, Celia, John, or their two younger children got phone calls and texts from her.
“She called every night to tell us where she was,” Mrs. Gagnon said.
On the day she died, Miss Gagnon had hoped to get an early start from a dormitory in Oberlin College, where she had been staying for two days, and had set up lodging for that night at the home of a Perrysburg woman who she had found through warmshowers.org, Mr. Gagnon said.
He said he got a call from her in the early afternoon while she was eating lunch from a spot on the North Coast Inland Trail, a paved bicycle and walking path, between Norwalk and Elmore.
Greg Wisler of Oak Harbor said he drove past Miss Gagnon on Route 163 on his way home from his business in Toledo. She was just a few hundred yards from the Nissen Road intersection, he said.
He said he intentionally slowed to allow an oncoming car to safely pass her on the freshly paved road. He said she was riding her bike on the berm.
“She was to the right of the white line,” he said.
According to Toledo police, the city had no fatal crashes involving bicycles in 2013. The year before, two bicyclists were killed in crashes involving motorists. There were 87 bicyclists hurt in collisions with vehicles last year, down one from a year ago.
Statewide, 18 bicyclists were killed and 1,525 injured in 1,928 bicycle-vehicle accidents on roads in 2012, according to the Ohio Department of Public Safety’s most recent data. That’s two more fatalities than in 2011, when 1,525 were hurt in 1,808 accidents.
Although no state statistics are available to confirm it, inexperienced riders who may not know the law contribute to accidents, bicycling advocates said.
“The key to safety in bicycling is knowledge. We find many fewer accidents among the experienced riders. There are some, but they are fewer. We must follow the rules and the laws,” said Mr. Smith, whose organization works to improve bicycling through legislation, education, and shared ideas.
Toledo Area Bicyclists, a local cycling club, on Saturday put on a clinic to educate and prepare riders who plan to take part in next month’s annual Reeves Northrup Memorial Bike to the Bay.
Club member Brian Gribble said he saw that the event, a multiple-sclerosis fund-raiser, included many novice and riders who were not prepared to ride the long distance from Perrysburg to Port Clinton and back.
“I just want them to be aware of what is going on around them and where they should be riding in connection with vehicles on the street,” he said. “We want them to have a good time. If they do this, they will have a great time and may become more involved in the bicycling community.”
By Mark Reiter - The Blade, Toledo, Ohio (MCT)
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