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Vicious Cycle 

Recent incidents involving bicyclists are, sadly, nothing new

Although bicyclists say they are no strangers to passersby who taunt them or motorists forcing them off the streets, some cycling advocates are particularly disturbed by the latest string of incidents, which include at least two beatings, as posted on the electronic bulletin board of Bike Pittsburgh, a local advocacy group.

Bike Pittsburgh's membership and project director Erok Boerer says he was alarmed by the bikers' beatings, as well as two other accidents -- a hit-and-run and another car-bike accident -- that all took place within the last three weeks.

However, "I can't really say for a fact there has been an increase" in crimes against cyclists because "we track general mishaps," says Boerer. But "it's very difficult to track" incidents by their nature because Pittsburgh police also don't categorize traffic accidents by the type of vehicles involved. Besides, Boerer says, many accidents go unreported.

The incidents, however, do not indicate a rash of crimes targeting cyclists, but rather what Dr. Paul Simpson, a State College cycling advocate who has lectured on violence against bikers, calls an ongoing bias against cyclists.

Both beatings are being investigated by the police. In one, which occurred on May 2 around 10:30 p.m., Wesley Buckwalter was biking home after his late shift at UPMC Presbyterian when three pedestrians jumped him at the corner of Coral and South Graham streets, near his Friendship home. The men stopped beating him only when Buckwalter struck back with a metal bike lock and mace. Neighbors also came out to help when they heard the commotion. His assailants fled.

"This was probably the most vicious and violent intent to harm I have ever felt -- no escalating road rage, just a completely unwarranted, pure desire to hurt me, that came hard and fast," wrote Buckwalter on the bulletin board.

Although the attack did little to hinder his 100-mile weekly bike routine, Buckwalter, 22, says he's now become more "aware of the people out there, rationally or not, [who] will make the decision to try to hurt [me]."

But some cyclists say even in an accident, and not a deliberate act, those who inflict injuries on cyclists don't feel responsible for their action. They say it's not uncommon for drivers to deny cyclists their insurance information, an act which police say is illegal.

Just ask Laurie Kir, 35, a nursing student and mother of three who was debilitated in January accident, similar to the incidents of the past few weeks.

On Jan. 18, Kir says, she was biking not far from her South Side Slopes home when a driver backed into her, knocked her off the bike and mangled it. The driver tried to flee the scene and, even when stopped, refused to call the police. After Kir was driven to UPMC Shadyside for treatment, she called the police to file a report -- but was told that she could only do so in the police zone where the accident happened.

Yet when she visited the police station on crutches, hours after the accident, the Zone 3 officers told her they would only take her case at the scene, Kir says.

"I just hobbled out of there. It makes me wonder how many accidents and cases of assault and batteries against cyclists that go unreported," says Kir. "I feel like as a cyclist I didn't have as many rights as others would." Kir says she's planning to sue the driver for damages. Pittsburgh police spokeswoman Diane Richard says she cannot comment on individual cases.

Simpson, who is also the vice president of Center Region Bike Coalition, says this callousness toward cyclists is ingrained in our car-driven culture.

"You've got a culture that really glorifies car use: The car is biggest and baddest thing on the road. They're supposed to dominate anything else," explains Simpson. "The prevailing cultural attitude is that cyclists are less important than motorists and they shouldn't have to deal with them. Cyclists should just meekly get out of the away. They have no right to be there in the first place and have no right to demand anything."

However, Simpson adds: "The law is completely different."

"A bicycle is considered a vehicle and is allowed the privilege of a car and covered under the same code," says Officer Jayne Novak,of the Pittsburgh police's 13-member bike-patrol unit.

"The driver must stop and provide information and care" in case of an accident, says Novak.

Although the law is on the cyclists' side, Bike Pittsburgh's Boerer says it would take "the city to adopt some initiatives ... to help reinforce the notion that cyclists are allowed on the street." He thinks that the city's plans to paint shared-lane markings on a well-pedaled stretch of Liberty Avenue in Bloomfield will be a first step in that direction.

Meanwhile, Boerer advises cyclists to remain vigilant. "Understand that you're in a vulnerable situation because you're not protected by a large steel cage around you."

click to enlarge Wesley Buckwalter, shown here outside his office at UPMC Presbyterian in Okaland, was attacked recently while biking home from work. - PHOTO BY HEATHER MULL
  • Photo by Heather Mull
  • Wesley Buckwalter, shown here outside his office at UPMC Presbyterian in Okaland, was attacked recently while biking home from work.

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