Rob Douglas' column appears Fridays in the Steamboat Today. He can be reached at rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.
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The consensus among the more than two dozen folks who gathered at the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s monthly Coffee and a Newspaper community forum Wednesday was summed up best by lifelong rancher Marsha Daughenbaugh when she said, “We’d better work this thing out before someone gets hurt.”
What “thing” was Daughenbaugh referencing? The ongoing — many would say growing — conflict between bicyclists and motorists, ranchers and pedestrians on the roads and trails of Northwest Colorado.
In recent years, local biking enthusiasts, businesses and governments have spearheaded a public-private campaign designed to entice cyclists from across the globe to come sample the roads and trails of the Yampa Valley. That effort has benefited local businesses as a growing number of summer visitors means increased revenue and seasonal balance for Steamboat’s shops, restaurants and lodging facilities as Ski Town USA doubles as Bike Town USA.
Arguably, a byproduct of increased bicycle tourism — combined with growing cycling enthusiasm by those who call Routt County home — has been an increase in the number of potentially dangerous interactions between bicyclists and motorists, pedestrians, horseback riders and agricultural workers using the roads and trails across a county that is larger than the state of Rhode Island. The increase in conflicts has brought a palpable belief that it is only a matter of time until someone is killed in a collision that would have been avoided had common sense, patience and respect prevailed.
At Wednesday’s forum, the call for the increased use of common sense, patience and respect — by cyclists and motorists alike — was championed by Steamboat Springs Police Department Chief Joel Rae. As is appropriate — particularly in a resort community with many visitors who are unfamiliar with applicable Colorado bicycling laws — Rae is disinclined to direct his officers to start writing tickets for cyclists who commit minor infractions. Rae, along with several others in the room Wednesday, thinks more education and outreach to the cycling public is needed.
At the same time, Rae left the forum having heard from community leaders, motorists, ranchers, homeowners, horseback riders, pedestrians and seasoned cyclists who all want the police to focus on the cyclists who flagrantly violate Colorado’s traffic laws. And, especially because of the concerns of ranchers about interactions between livestock handlers and cyclists on county roads, Rae will be briefing Routt County Sheriff Garrett Wiggins about Wednesday’s forum.
In a follow-up conversation Thursday, Rae stated that his officers have been directed to focus on bicyclists riding at night without lights. Additionally, Rae made clear that his officers have a range of enforcement actions they can and will employ when cyclists violate traffic laws, including verbal or written warnings, tickets and arrest.
Appropriately, the focus of Wednesday’s forum was not just bicyclists. Just as there are scofflaw bicyclists, there are motorists who behave irresponsibly — even illegally — when interacting with cyclists. Any cyclist who has spent more than a few hours on local roads can recite hair-raising experiences that left them shaken. The reality is that far too many motorists are far too cavalier when approaching cyclists on narrow mountain roads.
At the end of the day, if we draw on the common sense that Chief Rae thinks can go a long way toward reducing the number of potentially dangerous incidents between cyclists and motorists, there is a stark reality that should guide anyone behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. The driver of any motor vehicle must operate that vehicle in a manner that precludes any chance of striking a cyclist or forcing a cyclist off the road — even if the cyclist is breaking the law, impeding traffic or creating any other hazard.
Any motorist who thinks otherwise should take a moment and contemplate the guilt and psychological agony they will experience for the rest of their life having maimed or killed a cyclist because they let anger or frustration overcome common sense, patience and respect.
Since 1998, Steamboat resident Rob Douglas has been a commentator on local, state and national politics in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Colorado. To reach Douglas, email rdouglas