Oct 15, 2009 - Bike Advocacy Thoughts    Comments Off on The Letter I Never Sent

The Letter I Never Sent

Dear survivors of David Allison, I owe you a sincere apology.  I rode the NTP with my buddy Steve in September of 2009.  The terrible experience I had around Jackson and Tupelo with high speed motor vehicle traffic inspired me to write a letter to the park service that they needed to correct it.  I never sent it and I feel terrible.  If I had, and followed up on it, maybe David would still be alive.  Here is the letter:

Dear Sirs,

I recently completed a self-supported bicycle tour of the entire length of the Natchez Trace Parkway – September 20 – 27.  There are so many to enjoy this resource – historical and natural wonders are abound.   The bicycle camping facilities are well placed, clean and were just what we needed.  I did come away with so many wonderful memories, but I have a few negative experiences bicycling that I feel I need to share, and others have also expressed.  My only intent is to increase safety for bicyclists, and possibly increase the usage doing so.

First and foremost, the areas around Jackson and Tupelo MS are extremely heavily used by commuters and cross-town short-cutters.   It doesn’t seem that commuting and short-cutting is the intended purpose of the Natchez Trace Parkway, but I understand people will continue to use it.  Fifty miles per hour is too fast and unsafe for cyclists with no shoulder.  I propose reducing the speed limit to at most 40 miles per hour in these areas.  The alternative is to provide a safe shoulder for cyclists to travel the NTP in these areas. 

Second, I understand that construction vehicles should be allowed on the NTP to reduce construction costs, including the paving projects around Tupelo.  But, they should abide by special regulations, such as 10mph below the posted NTP speed limit, and slower around cyclists.  We were nearly run off the road several times by dump trucks.

Third, riding south to north for seven days, we saw a total of three park rangers.  Our first was at mile post 187.  The officer was extremely courteous.  The other two were in Tennessee.  More officers are needed, particularly around Tupelo and Jackson to slow commuters down. 

Finally, I propose that a law be enforced on the NTP requring motor vehicles to give a minimum of three feet when passing bicycles.  Mississippi and Alabama have no such law, but Tennessee enacted the Jeff Roth and Brian Brown Bicycle Protection Act of 2007 to require this.  You can find more about that law at www.tennessee3feet.org

Thank you so much for considering these suggestions. 

Pat Clements

David Allison was killed on the Natchez Trace Parkway while touring it by bicycle on October 9.   The Park Service press release stated that it appears the bicyclist swerved out in front of the car.  In advocacy circles, they call this the Single Witness Suicide Swerve.  More or less, this careless driver negligently ran over and killed David and there were probably no witnesses to what really happened other than the driver’s testimony at the scene.

After hunting information about the death, I also stumbled across an incident in April where a bicyclist from Netherlands was run over and killed.  I have no idea the outcome of that investigation. 

To redeem my lack of follow-through, I can assure you that I will do everything I can to save lives other cyclists on roadways where I can have an influence.  And I intend to push the NTP management to correct the situation of unsafe drivers on their roadway.  I am truly sorry and I carry this guilt forward in my mission.

What can you do when someone is killed like this?  INSIST that the accident is thoroughly investigated.  That means the driver’s speed should be estimated by length of skid marks.  The driver’s cell phone records should be subpoena’ed and reviewed for activity during the time of the accident.  You should question whether drug and alcohol tests were performed.  District Attorneys and law enforcement many times believe bicyclists should not be on the road.  At least by Tennessee and Mississippi law, bicyclists by law are valid users of the roadway.  DA’s and police have an obligation to protect us.  They MUST do their job.  And if they don’t know how to do their job, they must be informed.

Finally, the National Park Service, which encourages bicyclists by providing special facilities and marketing materials for bicyclists, need to correct the safety problems they have around Jackson and Tupelo.  We can’t afford another death on the NTP.  We’re already bankrupt from the ones in 2009.

I’m still very sad and full of regret for not sending my letter.

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