For veteran bicyclist Kevin Burke, safety is a two-way street
Bicycling is a wonderful way to get around: It’s healthy exercise, doesn’t burn fossil fuel and evokes a joyous sense of freedom.
Yet, as all of us who enjoy pedal power realize, there are risks.
“It’s a lot more dangerous now than when I was growing up. We used to ride our bikes everywhere. Today, I don’t like to have my kids out there on the roads alone,” said Kevin Burke of Stonington, a former state trooper and veteran cyclist who spends more time on two wheels than most people do on four.
His concerns are warranted. Citing National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics, Outside magazine reports that 857 cyclists died in crashes with drivers in 2018, the deadliest year for people on bikes since 1990. While nationwide deaths declined slightly during the COVID-19 pandemic because there were fewer cars and trucks on the road, the overall number of bicycle fatalities has risen steadily over the past decade — mostly from collisions with motor vehicles.
As a member of Bike Stonington, a community organization that promotes bike access, bike safety and bike awareness, Kevin has made it his mission to keep fellow riders safe. He also has taken a 40-hour training course offered by the International Police Mountain Bike Association.
Throughout the year on weekday mornings, the 58-year-old cycles more than 10 miles to Electric Boat in Groton, where he typically pedals another 30 miles while patrolling the submarine manufacturer’s main shipyard and two nearby locations as part of a security detail.
At the end of his shift, Kevin usually takes a circuitous route home, upping the return distance to 20 miles. A couple nights a week, as well as on weekends, he pedals longer distances with local riding groups.
While joining him Monday on a bike ride from his home to downtown Mystic and back, I picked up a few pointers I hope will keep me, and readers, safe.
Besides always wearing a helmet, even for short trips, “The most important issue is visibility,” Kevin said. This means not only wearing bright, reflective clothing or gear, but also outfitting your bike with a headlight and rear light that flashes in daylight, not just at night.
Though Kevin was wearing dark shorts and T-shirt, his fluorescent orange helmet stood out, especially in downtown traffic.
Kevin also has affixed a rear-facing video camera to his bicycle, and plans to add another to his handlebars, in order to document any unplanned encounters with motor vehicles. More riders today are adding this equipment, he noted.
Over decades of cycling, Kevin said he has been struck four times by vehicles — none causing serious injury, but cumulatively resulting in “a lot of lost skin.”
I learned something new when he prepared to turn right from West Main Street onto Gravel Street. I’ve always signaled for right turns by sticking my left arm out and bending it at the elbow, but Kevin set me straight.
“Just use your right arm,” he advised, explaining that many motorists aren’t familiar with the bent-left-arm signal, so it’s more effective to point with your right.
Another revelation: When making a left turn in traffic, instead of pulling over to the right and waiting for an opening to cross both lanes, carefully veer into the left lane before the intersection, signal with your left arm, and make your turn just as you would in a car, Kevin said.
State law gives bikers the same right to use the road as motor vehicles, he said — but this doesn’t mean that cyclists should ignore a more important dictum: Newton’s laws of motion. Regardless of who’s at fault, in any collision between a bicycle and motor vehicle, the bicyclist is always the loser.
Bicyclists may have the same rights as motorists, but they also share the same responsibilities, Kevin stressed.
This means stopping at red lights and stop signs, appropriately yielding the right of way at intersections, and not hogging the road by riding three or four abreast.
On quiet sections of scenic River Road Monday afternoon, we were able to ride side-by-side, which is legal in Connecticut. Whenever a vehicle approached, Kevin called out either “Car up!” or “Car back!” and I steered behind him, single file.
While riding in front, Kevin continuously used hand signals and verbal warnings to alert me of potential hazards ahead: potholes, storm drains, fallen branches, loose sand and other debris.
Most troubling are all the discarded beer cans and nips bottles heaped along so many roads — unsightly reminders that a lot of drivers are less than sober.
Yes, there are risks, but also ample rewards.
“It’s my life’s passion,” Kevin said.