Friction between bicyclists and motorists mounts in rural Orange County

ablythe@newsobserver.comJuly 17, 2014 

— Out in rural Orange County, where the roads are two lanes, winding and narrow, a war of the wheels has been going on for years.

Bicyclists team up for long countryside rides, pedaling single file or sometimes two to three abreast for exercise and camaraderie. Just the sight of a road teeming with the slower-moving two-wheelers can inspire impatience and escalating rage among some in four-wheel vehicles.

A June 25 incident on Orange Grove Road between an Orange County man in a pickup truck and a Durham lawyer on a bicycle illustrates the vicious cycle of conflict that plays out across the country as bicycling becomes a more common transportation mode.

The pickup truck driver is accused of intentionally slamming on his brakes in front of a pack of cyclists and now faces three criminal charges in connection with a move that sent one rider flying to the pavement.

The cyclist who took the rough tumble is recovering from a severe case of road rash and nursing a lingering rage about a road-wrangling incident that sent a case of the willies through local cycling communities.

“It seems like it’s gotten nastier out there in the last year,” said Andrew Prokopetz, the 59-year-old rider who was so scraped up and bruised that his shirt was shredded, his wedding ring was scratched, his finger was jammed and his ire provoked.

“You can’t brake-check somebody. There’s no reason for that. That’s road rage.”

William Kirk, 64, has been accused of using his 2002 Toyota Tacoma pickup as a lethal weapon. The Orange County resident has been charged with misdemeanor assault with a deadly weapon, assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury and injury to real property for damage to Prokopetz’s bicycle.

Efforts to reach Kirk and Sam Coleman, the Hillsborough attorney who represented Kirk last week during his first court appearance on the charges, were unsuccessful.

Criminal charges

Jim Woodall, the Orange-Chatham district attorney, said this week that it is unusual, but not unheard of, for criminal charges to be filed in clashes between motorists and cyclists.

Woodall recalled a case from more than a decade ago in which a motorist hit a cyclist with a boat paddle on a road to Jordan Lake.

In nearly 25 years as a prosecutor, Woodall has heard complaints about the friction between cyclists and motorists on specific roads – those near Jordan Lake in Chatham County and the winding rural roads near the farms and open fields of northern Orange County.

Earlier this year, Woodall was in northern Orange listening to questions for Orange County sheriff’s candidates at a forum and a question arose about whether the candidates planned to enforce traffic laws for cyclists.

When the candidates responded that they did, the crowd clapped and cheered.

“There clearly are – at least in some parts of the county – emotions involved in this,” Woodall said this week.

Cyclists in single file

On June 25, Prokopetz, John Boger, a 54-year-old from Carrboro, and about a half-dozen others were pedaling south on the Orange Grove Road about 7 p.m. GPS and data-collecting instruments on their bikes showed that they were notching about 31 mph on a downhill stretch between Borland and Bradshaw Quarry roads.

There were eight in the pack, and they were riding one behind another.

A silver truck came up behind them, according to Boger, then passed them and pulled in front of the pack.

The truck driver, according to the cyclists, then slammed on the brakes, or brake-jammed as they called it, and caused Prokopetz, the leader of the pack, to hit his bike brakes hard to avoid smashing into the back of the pickup truck.

Prokopetz, a lawyer who lives in Durham and works in the law and patent office of Bayer CropScience in Research Triangle Park, wrecked his bike and took a violent spill.

His front tire was ruined, and he suffered bruises, cuts and road rash on his arms and legs.

The truck driver didn’t get out; he sped away from the scene, the cyclists said.

Boger, angered, chased the truck, getting close enough to get the license plate number, and to worry that the man inside was about to jam the brakes again.

The cyclists called emergency dispatchers, beckoning law enforcement officers and an ambulance.

An ambulance was on the side of the road when Anthony Cecil, a deputy with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, just happened upon the wreck at 7:11 p.m. that warm, humid June evening.

Medical workers tended to Prokopetz’s injuries before transporting him to the hospital for further treatment. Boger and several other cyclists were in the southbound lane with the emergency caregivers.

After the scene was cleared, the deputy matched the license plate numbers with the truck owner and sent a corporal to Kirk’s home.

According to the incident report filed at the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, the truck owner told the corporal that he came up behind the bicycles and the rear rider motioned him around them.

“The suspect said he accelerated and went around the bicyclist,” according to the report. The driver contended he was going into a curve “too fast” and slammed on his brakes “to avoid an accident.”

But GPS data from the cyclists put the group in a straightaway at that point and questioned the account of the incident that Kirk initially gave to law enforcement officers.

In his incident report, Deputy Cecil said the corporal who went to Kirk’s home added: “The suspect then started complaining about bicyclist (sic) breaking the law and getting away with it.”

Riders fight back

Kirk was not immediately charged in the incident. The cyclists went to a county magistrate’s office to press charges, and the magistrate on duty initially did not plan to issue an arrest warrant.

The cyclists persevered, and after they urged the magistrate to talk with a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office, charges were filed. Kirk was arrested July 8 and appeared in court three days later.

Between 2008 and 2012, an average of 978 bicycle-motor vehicle crashes were reported to the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles each year. On average, 22 bicyclists were killed and many more were injured each year, according to the report on the state Department of Transportation website.

“There’s almost always somebody who passes a little too close,” Boger said this week.

Bicyclists hear the epithets uttered. They dodge bottles, cans and other objects flung through windows at them.

Many understand the importance of abiding by the same rules of the road that they ask motorists to follow.

But they also are increasingly adding handlebar cameras and other recording devices to help them fight back against motorists’ hostility against them.

A bicyclist riding between Cary and Morrisville in early June posted video on a Web page of a van driver who blasted his horn, then passed the cyclist very closely and started moving toward the bike before clearing it, despite no indication of oncoming traffic.

The video posted by the cyclist not only caught the attention of other two-wheelers. Morrisville police also saw it, homed in on the visible license plate number and ticketed the driver.

“Any of us, I think, understands temporary frustration,” said Boger, the cyclist in Orange County who chased down the truck involved in the June incident.

“There are always a few people who are going to be upset. There’s always someone who passes a little too close. But I wouldn’t call it a trend. It isn’t most of the people. But all it takes is one…”

Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1

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