In January, Earl Gillon, an experienced cyclist and well-known fixture of Lake Norman’s cycling community, was struck and killed by a vehicle on Mecklenburg Highway.
No charges were ever filed against the driver who told police that Gillon suddenly turned in front of him as he tried to drive around him on the two-lane road.
Local cyclists and friends of Gillon’s felt the impact of his loss so much they wanted to prevent another needless death like his from happening again.
And that comes through education for everyone who uses the road, said Kevin Elder, the board president of SAFE, or Street Access For Everyone. “[Gillon] was a friend of all of ours in Mooresville …,” Elder said. “That’s when the whole thing got started.”
Elder, 52, and several other cycling enthusiasts began SAFE, currently in the process of becoming a nonprofit organization, to help make local streets safer for cyclists, pedestrians and motorists, Elder said.
“We truly want to partner with city officials, DOT, police and things like that to try to figure out ways to help educate the public, help educate cyclists and help educate motorists,” said Scott McConnell, board vice president of SAFE. “And also make the streets safer by improving infrastructure, improving bike lanes and improving signage.”
One current SAFE project is to work with local towns to replace signs that say “Share the Road” with signs that have a picture of a bike with the words “May Use Full Lane” and “Change Lanes to Pass,” Elder said.
The “Share the Road” sign causes unintended confusion because motorists think it means bicyclists should get out of their way or worse, that cyclists shouldn’t be on the road at all, McConnell said.
That’s the farthest thing from the truth since cyclists are legally allowed to bike on the road, McConnell said. Many times, cyclists will ride in the middle of the lane instead of the far right because they can be seen more easily by motorists, McConnell said.
Town of Mooresville transportation planner Erika Martin has worked with SAFE members to send the signage proposal to the North Carolina Department of Transportation. Martin said the town of Mooresville is also working on a distracted driving campaign through social media and the town’s monthly newsletter to raise awareness.
And, on March 16, the Mooresville Board of Commissioners approved an updated version of the town’s bike and greenway plan. The new plan will set priorities over the next decade as to what off and on road side paths, greenways, rail trails, bike lanes and signage the town will create, Martin said. The plan update will be funded by a $52,000 NCDOT grant with a 30% match, or $15,000, from the town, Martin said.
“Anything we can do to help get the word out and protect our cyclists is helpful and a good thing,” said Martin.
Education is another part of SAFE’s initiatives, Elder said. The group is working with local schools to educate future motorists on how to properly pass cyclists and pedestrians safely, he said. The group has also held roundtable discussions with local police forces in Mooresville, Statesville, Cornelius, Huntersville and Davidson on how to implement new ideas for the safety of all street users, Elder said.
ICATS Transportation Services has also donated the back of one of their buses to allow SAFE to place a wrap on it with an educational message, Elder said.
McConnell has also spoken during the public comment periods of several town meetings where he shared his own story of being struck by a distracted motorist while cycling. McConnell, now 48, was hit on July 30, 2017, while cycling on Williamson Road. He sustained serious injuries including two broken vertebrae and was temporarily paralyzed, he said.
The driver was not charged with any crime, McConnell said.
The point of speaking before local lawmakers is to have SAFE be in the forefront of the minds of decision makers, he said. “To let them know we’re here,” McConnell said. “We’re tired of cyclists getting hit.”
Elder and McConnell both say motorists have become more aggressive and more distracted over the years. Cyclists are frequently yelled at, had things thrown at them while cycling and been “buzzed,” the act of a motorist driving very close to them on the road, Elder said.
“They do it to let you know they’re not happy with you and don’t want you out there,” Elder said. “It’s dangerous.”
And it’s very common, he said. “I don’t think there’s any cyclist out there that hasn’t,” said Elder, on having a close call.
Elder asks motorists to always pass a cyclist on the road by going around in the other lane when it is safe. State law allows motorists to pass a slower driver or cyclist when there is a double yellow line, he said.
One of the biggest goals of SAFE is to get drivers to pay more attention on the roads, Elder said. “I think it’s the biggest reason we’re seeing an increase in injuries and fatalities on the roads because people are so distracted,” Elder said.
SAFE’s next monthly meeting will be held April 5.
For more information on SAFE, visit www.safelkn.com