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Motorist-Cyclist Tensions on the Seacoast

Chief Walsh has softened the message on his sign since he first put it up, in response to criticism from cyclists.
Sam Evans-Brown
Chief Walsh has softened the message on his sign since he first put it up, in response to criticism from cyclists.

Tonight selectmen in Rye will hear from the town's lawyer about the legality of a new cycling ordinance in that town. Cycling - both for commuting and recreation - is on the rise, but so too is the number of cars on the road, and recently on the seacoast, tensions between cyclists and drivers have flared.

On Washington Street in Rye, there is an enormous, orange, flashing traffic sign, that says “Courtesy goes a long way, bikes single file,”  but that’s not what the sign always said.

Jeff Latimer, the owner of Gus' Bike Shop in North Hampton, says, "I got notified that there was a sign up in front of the Rye Police station a couple of weeks ago, and the sign said 'ride single file' and then it alternated to 'roads are for riding not chatting', exclamation mark."

Latimer has become the unofficial spokesman for the seacoast area cyclists offended by the language originallyused on the sign. The sign is part of a town campaign to educate riders about a new ordinance that would require cyclists to ride single file. The rule still needs to be vetted by a lawyer, and have a public hearing before it’s on the books. 

But Latimer says the town’s manner of communicating with cyclists was a little much.

"I think it kinda caught us by surprise that we were the biggest problem in town and that there was this huge sign in front of the police station."

Latimer may have been surprised, but tensions between cyclists and motorists have been simmering on the seacoast for some time now, and that's what caused Joe Mills, a Rye selectman of 20 years, to propose the single-file ordinance.

"We had a situation two years in Rye on Ocean Boulevard where, the bicyclist got upset with this gentlemen, and I’m not taking sides," Mills explains, "but he wound up on the hood of his car with a big rock."

In the2009 road-rage incident he’s talking about, criminal charges were brought against both the driver and cyclist. The incident became a sensation when a photo emerged of the cyclist lying on the hood of a corvette convertible, armed with a 14-pound rock.

Mills says he’s not against having bicycles on the road, but riding two abreast is just not safe.

"When I was a child my mother told me to stay to the right of the road, in single file and don’t be talking when you’re riding your bicycle." Mills muses, "and I don’t think anything’s changed since."

The seacoast is a likely place for cyclist/motorist conflicts to erupt. According to Rye Police chief, Kevin Walsh, many roads are narrow, there are a lot of drivers – especially in the summer, and there’s a thriving cycling community.

"There’s a lot of businesses or places cyclists will get together one or two nights a week, during the commute hours, and ride their bikes," Walsh says. 

These group rides can attract up to 20 cyclists massed together in a tour de france style pack. When you add that to an already burgeoning population of individual riders and bike commuters, some drivers have started to complain.

Bike shop owner Jeff Latimer says he was shocked by the comments at the bottom of the local newspaper’s articles about the sign.

 "You know there’s folks making comments like 'cyclists are speed-bumps', 'I like to aim for them', 'they don’t belong on the road,'" he says, "One lady actually termed it frightening, that she’s never felt so unsafe on the road as she has after reading those comments."

For his part, Chief Walsh acknowledges there have been a few who have been rude in their comments, at least there is some awareness and discussion happening. He says educating people was why he put the sign up.

"My goal is our enforcement level won’t be as hard because people are going to take the responsible action, which is be courteous to one another," Walsh explains.

But Walsh says he doesn’t want just cyclists to change their habits, but drivers too.

"It goes both ways," says Walsh, "As people on technology with cell phones talking and texting on their phone. Two wheels or four wheels the law is the same."

That’s one point that both Walsh and Latimer agree on: as the roads fill up with more cyclists, and more cars driven by increasingly distracted drivers, courtesy is going to be paramount.




Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.
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