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Knowledge is power in age-old battle between cyclists, drivers

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Sometime in the last few weeks, the city replaced the crosswalk signs where the Milwaukee Trail intersects with Russell Street. The old signs depicted a pedestrian; the new ones show both a pedestrian and a bicycle. This is a minor change, but it is extremely welcome. When I noticed it, I got off my bike and thanked the invisible hand of city government—which worked out nicely, since a driver was screaming at me to dismount anyway.

When I am riding on the Milwaukee Trail and need to cross Russell, I typically stop about 15 yards from the street so drivers don't see me. If they see me, they will stop, and if they stop and I ride my bike through the crosswalkas opposed to getting off and walking—there is about a 50 percent chance they will become enraged.

It's usually not the driver who stopped who yells; it's the one behind her, honking. I have gotten the finger riding through that crosswalk more times than I can count. I have been called a hippie, a derogatory term for homosexuals that starts with "F," and once—inexplicably but also to my vague pride—the N-word.

Twice, people have gotten out of their cars to accost me. I'm sure this is a coincidence, but both were large men in lifted pickup trucks. Both advanced the argument that I was required by law to get off my bike and walk when I entered the crosswalk.

My counterargument in both cases was aggressively anatomical. On other occasions, I have pointed out that getting off and walking would have forced the impatient driver to wait longer. The one argument I have learned never to advance, since it never works, is the correct one: the law does not require cyclists to dismount and walk in crosswalks.

I direct you to Sec. 61-8-608 (3) of the Montana Code:

(3) Except as provided in subsections (1) and (2), a person operating a vehicle by human power upon and along a sidewalk or across a roadway upon and along a crosswalk has all the rights and duties applicable to a pedestrian under the same circumstances.

Subsections (1) and (2) require cyclists to yield to pedestrians and prohibit riding through crosswalks on roads "where use of a bicycle is prohibited by official traffic control devices." Official traffic control devices do not include fat guys who threaten to kill me.

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It is legal to ride your bike through a crosswalk. It's not surprising many Missoula residents don't know that, since the Montana Code is not exactly a thrilling read. What is surprising is that seeing a bicycle in the crosswalk—or anywhere on the road, for that matter—throws so many drivers into a murderous rage.

Probably, the reason lies in the word "murderous." It's scary to think about what can happen if you hit a cyclist with your car. I got hit twice last summer—both times in the bike lane on Higgins, both by cars turning left. In both cases, the drivers were extremely angry at me, even though they had caused the accident and were in no danger of being hurt themselves.

These motorists were upset because they didn't want to hurt anyone else. If you are not a confident driver—for example, the kind that periodically makes a left turn into oncoming traffic and therefore finds driving a terrifying ordeal—seeing a bicycle is the first stage of a crisis.

What if you have to pass them? What if they dart out in front of you before you can stop? The problem is exacerbated by Missoula's robust population of genuinely bad cyclists, who move from sidewalk to street as blithely as spilled milk and otherwise act as though traffic laws existed to keep cars out of their way.

They don't. Traffic laws exist partly to keep drivers from killing cyclists. The next time you see me on my bicycle, consider how much skin each of us has in the game.

Two of my friends were killed riding their bicycles this year: one who lost control around a curve and crossed the centerline into oncoming traffic, and another who was run over with three or four other cyclists when a drunk drove through their Sunday morning charity ride. Neither driver was injured. I have yet to learn of any collision between a bicycle and a car in which the driver of the car was killed.

That's a terrible, frightening responsibility for drivers. It's almost as frightening as when a Mercedes cuts through the bike lane and catapults you over its hood.

If bicycles make you nervous, you should try riding one surrounded by two-ton steel machines. Or, if that's not your thing, try seeing traffic from someone else's perspective. If I'm wrong about the rules of the road, I might startle you. If you're wrong, I'm dead.

Dan Brooks writes about people, politics, culture and gear ratios at combatblog.net.

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