Room to Roll

Ryan Pretner’s near-fatal cycling accident spurs road-sharing reform that may save lives

cmykbwbgbrh7494.jpgDo you think the law will really make a difference?

Ryan Pretner takes a long time answering the question. With his head slightly cocked and his eyes wandering up and to the left, it looks like he’s thinking very hard. This is typical for someone with a traumatic brain injury.

“Yes,” he says finally, slowly. “I think it will make cyclists feel safer.”

Looking at Pretner today, you’d never guess that a little more than two years ago doctors had all but pronounced him dead. But you also wouldn’t guess that just a few weeks before that, he was a sharp, energetic Department of Transportation employee who loved recreational bicycle racing.

What changed? On Jan. 12, 2009, Pretner was riding by himself on St. Rose Parkway when a truck heading the same direction came up from behind and its side mirror struck Pretner in the back of the head, catapulting him to the side of the road. Sixty-three days later, the fog of coma began to lift and Pretner undertook a different kind of training– to regain his mind, his memory and his life.

Anyone would be moved by Pretner’s story, but bicyclists were moved to action. Their efforts culminated in a new law, taking effect Oct. 1, which will require motor vehicles passing bicyclists to move one lane to the left if it’s available or, if it’s not, to leave at least 3 feet of space between the vehicle and the bike.

It all began with a blog that Pretner’s family set up for friends and family to track his progress. Members of the cycling community rallied around Ryan, organizing fundraisers to help with his recovery.

For Dave Revzin, that wasn’t enough. Revzin was thinking about Pretner, whom he’d met once before the accident, during his morning ride with the Green Valley Cyclists: “We start early, around 6 a.m. The road is empty. A car comes along. There’s no bike lane. The car gets too close to me. I think, ‘Why doesn’t he move over a lane? … Why split lanes with a bicycle, when there’s two empty lanes to get into?’ Then another car did it, and I realized I could very easily end up like Ryan.”

A retired financial adviser, Revzin had no experience with legislation, but he made up for it with plenty of determination. With the help of his son, an attorney, Revzin wrote what would become Senate Bill 248 and got Sen. David Parks, D-Las Vegas, to introduce it to the Legislature.

Parks was inspired to support the bill because of his own experience “getting shaved” by cars while riding his bike. Pretner testified in favor of the bill during hearings at both the Senate, where it passed unanimously, and the Assembly. Gov. Brian Sandoval signed it into law on May 19.

• • •

There’s no shortage of spandex-clad endorphin junkies to tell you how much Nevada needed a 3-feet law. Although it’s a tough number to pin down, community leaders estimate there are about 4,000 serious cyclists in the Las Vegas Valley, based on turnout at major events and membership in clubs and forums. The Regional Transportation Commission’s Viva Bike Vegas, an annual ride with circuits from 17 to 103 miles long, pulled nearly 2,000 riders last year. (This year’s event is on Oct. 15.)

And that’s not counting the people who lollygag around bike paths, hop on their cruisers for a quick grocery run and, yes, even bike to work.

Jacob Snow is one of these and, like most others, has experienced both inattention and aggression from drivers while on his bike. Snow, however, is in a position to do something about it. He’s general manager of the RTC.

What he’d really love to see is a citywide infrastructural overhaul modeled on the RTC’s Complete Streets program, which designs roads to be friendly to automobiles, public transit, bicycles and pedestrians. But he’ll settle for the 3-feet law for now.

“It means cyclists will be safer,” he says. “That’s the bottom line.”

• • •

Available data doesn’t draw a direct line between 3-feet laws and cyclist safety, but a strong common-sense argument can be made for giving riders some space.

Twenty states, including Nevada, now have 3-feet laws, according to the advocacy website Others in the Southwest are Arizona, Colorado and Utah. In Arizona, cars killed 25 bicyclists in 2009, down slightly from 26 in 2000, when that state passed its 3-feet law. Utah has had more success. The number of cyclists killed there dropped from 10 in 2006, when its law passed, to five in 2009. (Comparative data wasn’t available for Colorado, whose law was enacted in 2009.)

In Nevada, fewer bicyclists are killed each year, per capita, than in Arizona; but more than in Colorado or Utah. Cycling deaths in Clark County have dropped each year since 2006—from seven to three. Fatalities, though, are only part of the picture, as Pretner’s case shows. For each death, there are dozens of injuries—many of them severe.

“Between 950 and 1,050 bicyclists and pedestrians are struck by cars each year [in Clark County],” says Erin Breen, director of the Safe Community Partnership in the Transportation Research Center at UNLV. “Most people think someone breaking their leg isn’t that serious. The head of trauma at UMC told me that a femur fracture keeps the average adult out of work for a year.”

The problem, Breen says, is one of attitude. “It’s rudeness. Everybody’s in a hurry to get where they’re going, and if you get in their way, heaven forbid!”

In addition to SB 248, she points to Assembly Bill 328 as part of the solution. This new law, also approved in the recent legislative session, automatically penalizes motorists who strike bicyclists or pedestrians (and are at fault) with hefty fines.

• • •

Do laws really make any difference? Not if you don’t publicize and enforce them, experts say.

Revzin and Snow are talking about distributing T-shirts emblazoned with 3-feet law messages at this year’s Viva Bike Vegas. Breen says the Strategic Communications Alliance, encompassing her program as well as NDOT and the Office of Traffic Safety, will soon roll out a campaign promoting the new cycling and pedestrian laws, as well as the law prohibiting hands-on cell-phone use. Lee Pretner, Ryan’s father, is working with the Department of Motor Vehicles to make sure the 3-feet law is incorporated into driver education, exams and tips.

As for enforcement, Snow and Breen say local police departments have been diligent upholders of similar laws—in part because they affect police, who also ride bikes and stand in the line of oncoming traffic during stops.

“They know the laws. It’s their job to quote chapter and verse from NRS (Nevada Revised Statutes), and they’ll be looking for those types of violators,” Snow says.

If the cops are indeed watching out for cyclists, they might notice Ryan Pretner. In March, for the first time since his accident, he got back on a bicycle.

Alongside him was his new wife, Sylvia Esparza, the woman who kept a steady watch by his bedside during the agonizing early stages of recovery, which took Pretner—who turns 40 on Aug. 22—to clinics and specialists in two states. It was Esparza who put a stationary bike in the bedroom and made sure it was part of her husband’s daily routine.

“I still love riding,” Pretner says with a smile.

Esparza smiles, too. “The accident took so much away,” she says. “By riding again, Ryan got something back.”

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