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Commentary: Weather requires extra caution for vehicle drivers and all others on the road

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Fall is upon us, with winter quick on its heels. As temperatures drop and the days get shorter, many of us will bundle up and hustle out to our cars after work, eager to get home to our families, go holiday shopping, or attend parties. We have all begun to face shorter days, overcast skies, wind and precipitation as we travel to our destinations. Weather-related incidents make up 24 percent of all crashes and 17 percent of crash fatalities; so a greater awareness of people on bike and foot is essential to ensure everyone’s comfort and safety through the winter season.

Some might think that biking in winter is crazy, but we’re out there. If the frozen tundra of Minneapolis has one of the highest bike commuting rates in the country, you can definitely count on cyclists braving the winter here in St. Louis, especially now that we rank number 19 in the nation for car-free commuting. Many of us choose to bundle up and bike or walk through the cold months for the exercise, to experience the quiet parks blanketed in snow, or just to save a few dollars to put toward holiday gifts. However, for many people, biking, walking and public transit are not choices, but the only way to make ends meet. A quick search in American Fact Finder, using St. Louis City and income as qualifiers, reveals that 21 percent of all city families live below the poverty level. Our concern for safety during transit should be just as much a priority as local heating assistance, food banks and toy drives.

Rain, snow and ice (hopefully) change how we drive cars. We take extra caution by slowing down, allowing for greater stopping distance, and maneuvering around snow drifts that pile up and spill out into the roadway. The same cautionary adjustments apply to those riding bicycles. You can expect cyclists to take the lane more frequently in the winter; often, bike lanes are not plowed, and it is safer for people to ride their bikes in tire tracks left by car traffic. Wet conditions also require people to ride a bit slower and start braking sooner. Pedestrians and public transit users must also adapt; often, snowdrifts pile so high at corners and bus stops that those on foot must literally climb over them. All roadway users, regardless of mode, should plan on their commutes taking longer than usual for us all to navigate safely through winter conditions.

Visibility is a major issue for winter cycling and walking.  As we approach the solstice, the days get shorter and shorter. For many of us, it’s dark during our commutes to and from work, forcing bike commuters and pedestrians to go the extra mile to be seen. For those who ride bicycles, Missouri law requires at least one front white light and one red rear reflector. While this is the bare minimum required to ride legally after dusk, the more lights, reflectors and high-visibility clothing, the better. The onus should not fall entirely on those riding bicycles, however; headlights and taillights go out on cars and the same can happen to bike lights. Batteries go dead, or on rainy days, lights can become water-logged and flicker out. USB rechargeable models may run out of juice  — whatever the case may be, it is just as important for motorists to be highly aware and vigilant as it is for cyclists to be visible and predictable.  (While no law exists for pedestrian visibility after dusk, it is of course a good idea to wear lights or reflective material when walking as well.)

When considering visibility of people on bike and foot, it’s valuable to note the difference between seeing and awareness. When we see something, it means we cast our eyes upon it. Our eyes send signals to our brain to recognize an object, and it ends there. This automatic process does not translate to awareness, which takes more effort. To be aware means to stop and actively look for all types of vehicles and travelers — including people riding bicycles, and people on foot and using wheelchairs crossing the street. It means checking your blindspot for people on bicycles when making a right-hand turn. It means accepting that you may have to slow down behind a cyclist, or momentarily stop behind a bus as people board. It means that regardless of the season, we must remember we’re all on the road for a purpose, and we all have loved ones waiting for us at home.

Molly Pearson is an American League of Bicyclists’ certified instructor, and serves as TravelGreen Program Coordinator at Trailnet. The mission of Trailnet is to lead in fostering healthy, active, and vibrant communities where walking, bicycling, and the use of public transit are a way of life. She will be writing Voices articles to raise awareness and understanding of bicycling conditions in St. Louis, and how such conditions affect all roadway users.