BETHEL — The recent debate over cars and bicycles sharing the road ramped up emotion at Tuesday’s selectmen meeting, but all concerned agreed they have a common goal of safety on the road.

A proposal in April to add signs to three Bethel roads reminding motorists to keep at least 3 feet between their vehicles and bicycles was put on hold when some residents said the signs should also include reminders to cyclists about sharing the road.

Selectmen said they wanted to consider that, and hear from more parties on the subject.

That happened Monday when selectmen received a letter, written by President Dennis Doyon of the Bethel Area Business Association, outlining that organization’s concerns.

“Navigating commercial vehicles around clusters of cyclists, sometimes 20 to 30 at a time, is often difficult, particularly when roads are narrow or when the visibility of potential oncoming traffic is lessened,” Doyon wrote. “The stories of ‘close call’ hazardous incidents are as numerous as the drivers and cycle enthusiasts on the road. Clearly, we in no way wish to discourage this recreational activity, but we must find a way to coexist with a mutual respect for the rules of the road and each other. The possibility of a tragedy is too great to not consider this an issue of importance and we urge the selectmen to find resolution.”

Also writing a letter was businessman Rick Whitney, who described close calls and said cyclists “need to abide by the single-file law as well as other vehicle laws.”

He suggested having cyclists over the age of 18 register and pay excise tax on their bikes “to help pay their fair share of widening and maintaining the roads they use.”

Selectman Peter Southam, who is the cycling coach at Gould Academy, said there is no single-file law for bicycles, noting they have to be able to pass each other.

Chairman Stan Howe, a bicyclist himself, said, “There should be [a law].” 

But Southam said cyclists typically take turns dropping back in line from the front of the pack. And without that option, he said, cycling teams cannot train properly.

“We would have to cancel the program,” he said, noting the Gould team is the best in New England.

Southam said the way for motor vehicles to pass cyclists is to first match the speed of the bikes and then go around them.

He also said that the uneven conditions of many roads in the Bethel area do not always allow cyclists to stay to the right. The bikes legally have the right to the travel lane, he said, and keeping all the way to the right can also encourage motorists to “blow by” cyclists at 60 mph, rather than first matching speed.

Southam added that he believes it is safer for a vehicle to pass two lines of 10 cyclists each than one single-file line of 20 bikes.

Resident Bud Kulik said if a bicycle is considered a vehicle and must abide by the same laws as cars, they should not be allowed to ride side by side.

“Two cars are not allowed side by side,” he said.

Southam said motorcycles often ride that way.

“That doesn’t make it right or safe,” Kulik said.

Southam said he spends a lot of time telling children to move to the right when possible, and cyclists and motorists need to seek a middle ground. He noted that the Gould cyclists are teenagers, making it difficult to get them to always comply.

“Maybe that’s why they shouldn’t be bicycling on the highway,” resident Bob Chadbourne said. The law should be enforced equally for all, he said. “Everyone has to be courteous.” 

Southam did have praise for Bethel area drivers, saying that over the 25 years he has been cycling here they “have gotten much, much better with bikes.” 

After a 45-minute discussion the board decided to meet with Oxford County Sheriff Wayne Gallant and a representative of the Maine Bicycle Coalition about the issue. The Sheriff’s Office provides law enforcement for the town.

Coaches to pay

In other business at Monday’s meeting, the board voted to require all youths to pay to play sports in Bethel, with no exemptions for parents who serve as head coaches, and also figure out a way to provide for financial hardship situations when needed for anyone. The Recreation Committee several years ago waived the fees for children of head coaches.


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