Boyle column: Let's put aside the cycling arguments

John Boyle

I hate to think about the road ahead for Chad Campbell.

It used to conjure images of brisk, exhilarating bike rides. Now it means months and maybe years of medical treatments, surgery and rehabilitation.

Campbell, a 46-year-old West Asheville resident and former professional cyclist, sustained severe injuries the morning of Sept. 2 when he was struck by a pickup truck traveling 55 mph on Newfound Road, off Leicester Highway. The pickup driver, Jerry Plemmons, who lives on Newfound Road, was charged with reckless driving, according to the N.C. State Highway Patrol.

Campbell, a father of two who was wearing a helmet at the time of the collision, has a broken pelvis, a broken back, a broken arm and head injuries. His ex-wife, Wendy Campbell, told my colleague, fellow reporter Karen Chavez, that he will require extensive medical care and surgeries, including reconstructive surgery to his bones and rods in his spine.

When the story hit the website, it didn't take long for the comments and the bickering to start flowing.

Some pointed out that Plemmons, a retired school principal, is a good man and simply didn't see Campbell in the early morning light and possible fog, although the Highway Patrol said conditions were clear, and Campbell was wearing bright clothing and had a light on his bike. Others chastised Plemmons, 77, for not paying close enough attention.

Other commenters had to indirectly take the cyclist to task, noting how dangerous our narrow mountainous roads are and stating that they just wouldn't ride bikes there, essentially inferring that no one should take such a risk.

Few subjects seem to rile locals as much as bicyclists on the roads. I've written on the subject a few times, and I can tell you the animus against cyclists doesn't lurk very far beneath the surface, if at all.

Whenever a cyclist is struck, the same arguments arise: They shouldn't be out there. Our roads are made for cars, not bikes. They don't pay gasoline taxes, so why should they get to ride on the roads? It's just too dangerous an activity, so it's foolish if they do it.

Folks, it's time for our approach to this subject to evolve, and for all of us to accept some plain facts:

• Cyclists have every right to be on the road, legally and any other way you want to argue. The vast majority are also car owners, so they do pay gasoline taxes.

• They are vulnerable out there, because they're on two wheels and are not surrounded and protected by 3,000-pound metal machines.

• Most of our roads are not particularly safe for cyclists, but these also tend to be roads that are beautiful to ride and take you to great views. Cyclists are going to ride them.

• I suspect more and more will join them, as cycling continues to grow in popularity, both as basic transportation and for recreation.

• While cyclists obviously have responsibility for their own safety, motorists have to be vigilant, if not hyper-vigilant, on the roadways. Simply put, expect to see cyclists out there at any time of day, and really pay attention when you're driving.

If we don't lean toward hyper-vigilance behind the wheel, we're going to be overwhelmed by facts such as these, which I found online at the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center:

• In 2014, 4,884 pedestrians and 726 bicyclists were killed in crashes with motor vehicles, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Traffic Safety Facts.

• The number of estimated bicyclist injuries rose to 50,000 in 2014, up from 48,000 in 2013.

• The total cost of bicyclist injury and death is over $4 billion per year, according to the National Safety Council.

I found it interesting that the average age of bicyclists killed in crashes with motor vehicles has risen, standing at 45 years old in 2014, up from 39 in 2004, according to the PBIC. Of those killed, 88 percent were male, and 71 percent of the bicyclist fatalities occurred in urban areas.

In this latest incident, my heart goes out to both families, which have to be devastated.

On Friday, I had a long conversation with Mike Sule, founder of Asheville on Bikes, which advocates for a bike-friendly culture and improved safety.

"The conversation really needs to be about people," Sule said. "This is an issue of public safety. To revolve the conversation (around) 'motorists versus cyclists' is to really miss the opportunity on enhanced investment in transportation infrastructure and legislation."

That would run the gamut from pushing for changes to include bike lanes when repaving and looking at reducing speed limits on rural roads to removing visual impairments and increasing awareness that cyclists are using the roads.

"Both the motorist and cyclist were put in unsafe conditions," Sule said of this most recent tragedy.

Narrow roads and high speed limits can spell disaster, and Sule says he'd really like to see the conversation pushed beyond offering useful safety tips to making long-term investments to provide real solutions.

But Sule also knows that changing the culture — and the roads — will take time. In the here and now, he's asking motorists to make a simple commitment.

"The first thing a motorist can do is operate your vehicle with full attention — put down your cell phone, stop messing with the stereo and drive the automobile like you’re in an environment populated with people," he said. "There is nothing wrong with slowing down, decelerating, and waiting for the safest conditions to pass."

When passing a cyclist, give him as much room as you safely can. I know I always try to give them at least three feet, if not more.

For cyclists, please wear that bright colors and use flashing lights. If you can, ride when visibility is the best.

Sule "pushes back" against some of these ideas, noting that "a lot of research says bright clothes don’t make for safer conditions," and pointing out that pedestrians and drivers are not prodded to wear bright green or orange. Also, urban cyclists who are commuting are usually wearing street clothes, not garish cycling togs.

"We don't want to make that the standard," Sule said. "We want to make safety the standard."

I hear what he's saying, but I'm going to beg to differ with him here, as in my personal experience I can pick up cyclists from much farther away when they're wearing bright clothes and using flashing lights on their bikes. To me, it's about staying alive and unhurt, and I think anything you can do so motorists will see you just makes sense.

The bottom line is we all have to give a little. Cyclists need to remember to follow the rules of the road and be courteous, and motorists have to be patient and really be on alert on the roadways.

Lives are at stake, and we're not going to stop driving cars or riding bikes. We've got to live together on this one.

"We all have to compensate for the unsafe conditions we’re put in,” Sule said.


This is the opinion of John Boyle. Contact him at 828-232-5847 or

A cyclist waits for a traffic light Friday afternoon on Woodfin Street in downtown Asheville.