Widow of local cyclist: “Pass them like you love them”

The video of a Tennessee SUV driver plowing into a bicyclist on the Natchez Trace, never stopping, was shocking to many. What may be more shocking is that the action in the video is so common, it has its own name.

Decatur attorney Bruce Hagen of bikelaw.com says it's called a "punishment pass."

"Certain drivers feel that they're going to take it upon themselves to punish somebody simply for being on a bike by buzzing them and coming very close or in this case, just taking them out," Hagen tells WSB.

Hagen, who is also a frequent rider himself, says there is a lot of misplaced anger that some drivers have against bike riders--who are, he notes, legally allowed to share the road with motor vehicles.

"They'll throw things out the window at them. I've heard from a lot of friends and clients about having beer bottles, cans, and food and other things thrown out of cars at them by folks who were passing by, as well as shout all kinds of obscenities to them.

"But using your car as a weapon is the worst offense, and certainly the most dangerous thing that we see--and sadly, we see it all too often."

The Tennessee incident was shot by a camera on another cyclist's helmet. It shows one truck pass the riders easily, giving them a wide berth, before the second one veers to the right and hits the cyclist. That rider bounced to his feet and his injuries are reportedly non-life-threatening. The video helped lead to the arrest of the SUV's driver, 58-year-old Marshall Neely, III, who initially told police that someone had thrown a bicycle at him.

Hagen says he was "furious" the first time he saw the video.

"He's intentionally trying to hit this guy and knock him down, which he does.

"This guy is a menace," he says.

To listen to more of Veronica Waters’ interview with Hagen, click HERE.

Mary Carol Harsch can't bring herself to watch the video. Her husband of 17 years, John Harsch, was a popular Henry County physician and avid cyclist. He was killed by a driver in April 2016.

Dr. Harsch was out with a group of riders on Lower Woolsey Road and had stopped to help a cyclist who had fallen off of her bike, and they were slightly behind their group. Mrs. Harsch says John liked to ride around the Atlanta Motor Speedway because it is light on traffic, and safer.

"A driver came up behind him and never saw him. Never even put on his brakes. And my husband's head went through his windshield," says Mrs. Harsch.

He survived for a while. Weather was windy, she says, so flying him to Grady Memorial Hospital was not possible. He was transported by ambulance, and later died.

Harsch says it was proven that the driver was talking on the telephone at the time. He stopped and cooperated with police. This past March, Cleven Ingram pleaded guilty in Henry County to misdemeanor homicide by vehicle and improper passing of a bicycle. His sentence included two years' probation with 60 days to serve.

Mary Carol says John was serious about cycling and about safety, and that they had many discussions about the best times of day and places for him to ride. If it would be dark, he made sure he was well-lit. He tried early morning rides on country roads. He kept changes of clothes at work so he could travel by bike often. He helped teach biker safety in a training group. The irony, she says, is that he was doing everything right, and was still killed.

"I'll never let go of the idea that cell phones are so, so dangerous to have in your car, and that no one needs to be on their phone as long as they're behind the wheel. Not even hands-free," Harsh says. "Hands-free would be a good start, but just...it can wait."

Harsch says she believes the judge was fair in Ingram's sentencing.

"I also feel like the man that hit my husband has his own life sentence that I don't want to believe that any human being would ever get over that," she says.

Harsch says she could not fathom the idea that the Tennessee hit-and-run appeared to be deliberate--although the driver, Neely, has denied that. She says she would tell him, "You need some help to understand what got you to that point that you would feel compelled to deliberately put someone's life at risk. Not just to maim them. I mean, that cyclist could have died instantly and that would have been the end of his life, and guess what? Probably yours, too."

To listen to more of Veronica Waters’ interview with Harsch, click HERE.

Hagen contends that here in Georgia, the laws are not adequate when it comes to punishing people who injure people on bikes. He's advocating for a Vulnerable Road User Law, which would enhance the penalties for a negligent or reckless driver who harms someone who is not in a vehicle.

"Now, they're pretty weak, and it's treated like any other traffic offense," Hagen says. "In the absence of an aggravating factor like DUI, drugs, or a hit and run, somebody could kill a person on a bike and serve no more than a year in jail--and rarely do they even get sentenced to that. It's taking members of our society and saying that your lives don't matter...because you choose to be on a bike. It's a real dehumanizing thing."

Hagen and Harsch urge drivers to take heed of the advice, "Pass them like you love them." It's an effort to encourage empathy among drivers by encouraging them to imagine that the bicyclist sharing the road with them is someone they care about--and then driving around them that way.

"If you understand that the person on that bike is a member of your community," says Hagen, "they are a father, a mother, a brother, a daughter, they're human beings who have lives and families, and you treat them as such, hopefully that just gives you the compassion and the patience to just say, 'Alright. I will take my time and safely pass them.'"

"First and foremost, it is their legal right to be on the road," says Harsch. "Pass them like you love them because there are people that do love them. That could be your sister, brother, husband, uncle, child, whomever, on the bicycle. Just pass them delicately like it's a person that you care about. They're just going about their business."

Georgia law says drivers in a motor vehicle have to leave at least three feet of distance when passing someone on a bike. Hagen urges leaving five or 10 feet, if possible--or just waiting patiently.

"Really, that 15 seconds that you might be delayed, how awful really is that for you, compared with the idea that you're going to allow somebody to safely get to work, get to school, or ride for recreation."

Watching the video from Tennessee, Hagen pointed out that it is also legal to pass a bike rider over a double yellow line, as long as it can be done safely.

Bike safety is in the spotlight even more now in Atlanta, as the city launched a bike share program in the summer of 2016. Relay Bike Share gives users the ability to pick up a cruiser at one of more than five dozen locations. MARTA has also partnered with Relay Bike Share, installing bike racks and repair stands at 37 train stations, except for the airport. Each repair stand has bike maintenance tools and tire pumps, and of the new bike racks are located within the fare gates, protected from the elements and under surveillance.

Mary Carol Harsch's grief is still raw, but she says it's important for her to use any opportunity she can to speak up for cyclist safety for her late husband and for other riders out there.

"I will say to one of my sisters, 'John's not coming back, right? He's really not coming back.' So it's still hard for me to believe," she says, her voice breaking, "but I would never be able to do this had he not given me the strength and made me the person that I am prior to my losing him."

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