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Byline: Susan Palmer The Register-Guard

When Andy Stahl-Wellborn hits the stretch of Territorial Highway between Gillespie Corners and Hamm Road on his daily commute to Eugene, he pedals as fast as he can.

And he prays.

The bucolic curvaceous mile of rural highway is beautiful. But it is also narrow with no shoulders. If Stahl-Wellborn encounters a vehicle that requires the whole lane - say, a logging truck or a fire engine - there is nowhere for him to go. A longtime commuter who rides his bike to work three or four days a week, Stahl-Wellborn knows the risks bicyclists face there, but rides anyway, despite the fact that family and friends worry for his safety.

"Everybody knows that if I bought it on a bike, that is where it would happen," said Stahl-Wellborn, who is executive director of an environmental nonprofit agency.

The community was shocked last month when veteran bicyclist and athlete Jane Higdon died on Territorial, killed instantly when she fell beneath the rear wheels of a logging truck overtaking her and three other cyclists. The accident is still under investigation by the Oregon State Police.

The tragedy hit hard and has fueled plenty of talk among bicyclists and those who live in the Lorane Valley. Many residents contend that the road is dangerous and no place for bikes.

But state accident statistics don't bear that out. In the past decade there have been no bicycle-vehicle crashes on that stretch of road, according to the state Department of Transportation.

Drivers face greater risks than cyclists on Territorial, with 105 vehicle collisions recorded in the past decade. ODOT compiles accident data from local police departments and emergency medical technicians dispatched to accidents.

Cyclists cruising rural areas face worse odds on a much wider road with ample shoulders - Highway 99 between Eugene and Junction City, where dozens of accidents in the last four years have resulted in injuries.

Statistically speaking, city bicycling is much more dangerous. The six other fatal bicycle accidents recorded in Lane County in the past five years were spread out among city and county roads and not concentrated in any one area.

Still, anyone familiar with Territorial Highway can see the potential for tragedy, said Jack Graham, a retired Weyerhaeuser employee who lives in the area.

"We've had lots of discussion out here," he said. "It seems like everybody is against the bicyclists on that road," he said.

Members of the Lorane Grange have drafted a letter to ODOT expressing their concerns, and are circulating it among other area granges before sending it, Graham said.

Drivers come up suddenly on bicyclists when they come around a curve, often finding two or three riding abreast and taking up the lane, he said.

Because of the way the road curves, it's not safe to pass and cars will stack up, frustrated at being slowed down, he said.

But Stahl-Wellborn, who has lived in the area for 10 years and runs a sheep farm, thinks there's more to the conflict than drivers who lose a few minutes before they can safely pass a cyclist.

"There is a perception among the more conservative areas of the countryside who believe bicycles represent a more urban liberalism that is both threatening and unwelcome," he said. "It's more than just about the road because you have zero complaints about farm tractors on this road and yet they go slower than bicycles and they hold up more traffic. ... When you see a tractor, you know that it's one of us. When you see a bicyclist, you know it's one of them."

Graham thinks that tractors are easier to see and react to. He wishes the state would either widen the road or bar bicyclists from it, in the same way they're barred from riding along Interstate 5. Failing that, maybe they could be allowed to ride toward oncoming traffic, the same way pedestrians walk on such roads, he said.

Because of the state's limited funds, there are no plans to widen Territorial, just one of many narrow rural roads, said spokesman Joe Harwood.

"That's a problem all over Oregon, roads with 12- to 14-foot lanes. We can't widen them all," he said. "I'm not minimizing Jane Higdon's death, because it was terrible. But drivers and cyclists share responsibility for safety there."

While it may seem counterintuitive, narrow roads aren't necessarily more dangerous, said Sheila Lyons, a pedestrian and bicycle manager with ODOT.

"Where conditions are perceived to be constrained with users grouped closer together, more sharing is required and you find the accident statistics not as troublesome," Lyons said. "We found that with roads that are built wide and speeds are high, the attention required to drive them is less and accident statistics show them to be more dangerous," she said.

Community members who want to see the state make changes to Territorial Highway can lobby for them with the Lane County board of commissioners, Harwood said.

The bicycling community is still reeling from Higdon's death, but it is unlikely to keep riders off the road.

In fact, Territorial Highway is being considered as a potential addition to the state's scenic bikeway. The Parks and Recreation Department has created a signed touring route that begins at Champoeg State Park near Portland and ends 130 miles to Armitage Park in Eugene.

The bikeway will be extended from Eugene to Oakland this summer, with a trial ride, organized by Cycle Oregon on July 22 and 23. The route could include Territorial from Gillespie Corners south to the town of Anlauf, or it could follow Highway 99, said state trails coordinator Rocky Houston.

Territorial's lack of shoulders is offset by its lower traffic volume and may make it a safer route, Houston said.

He's working with ODOT, and the counties and cities along the way, before finalizing the bikeway.

With the state actively promoting Oregon as a destination for bicyclists, drivers and cyclists will encounter each other more often.

Stahl-Wellborn, who has commuted in much more congested areas, such as Portland and Seattle, says he tries to ride assertively, rather than aggressively.

"By that I mean obeying all the traffic laws but claiming your lawful place," he said. "I ride where I am obvious to cars. I think that's very important for a bicyclist to do, to ride as if they belong there."


Andy Stahl-Wellborn turns a corner on Territorial Highway during his commute to Eugene.
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Title Annotation:Accidents; A fatal accident on Territorial triggers alarm, but the danger may lie around another bend
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jun 24, 2006
Previous Article:BRIEFLY.
Next Article:Cane dispute runs its course.

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