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Highway Cycling Danger

Doug Clough, shown east of Ida Grove, Iowa, along Highway 59, said highways are increasingly dangerous for cyclists due to a growing number of distracted drivers.

IDA GROVE, Iowa | Doug Clough is giving up bicycling on Iowa county roads, so these days he is only churning miles on recreational trails that don't put him in proximity with two-ton steel vehicles hurtling by at 55 mph or more.

It is a change, Clough, 52, of Ida Grove, Iowa, didn't want to make. He has enjoyed biking on roads since embracing the sport back in his teens when growing up in Des Moines. But Clough said the majority of people he's seen recently are breaking the law by using smart phones to check messages and similar technological tasks while driving.

"Every other person is looking at their cell phone. I sense my mortality. But I am just not going to die on a county road," Clough said.

He thought about the percentage of drivers he sees near Ida Grove who are juggling smart phone tasks. He contended it is no hyperbole to say the number is 80 percent.

Iowa law on use of mobile devices while driving changes is strengthened next week. Drivers still will be able to use hand-held devices to make phone calls or check GPS directions. But beginning July 1, they can be pulled over by police and face a $30 fine, plus court costs, for using devices to write, send or view an electronic message.

In signing the bill in April, then-Gov. Terry Branstad said he was disappointed the Legislature did not adopt an outright ban on using hand-held devices while driving. During the legislative debate, proponents called it a bad idea to take your eyes off the road and hands off the wheel while driving, but applauded the incremental progress after Iowa’s traffic deaths rose from a five-year low of 317 in 2013 to 403 in 2016.

Scott Sumpter, of Ankeny, founder of the Bike Iowa organization, said many bicyclists throughout the state are concerned about the number of people struck by vehicles and injured or killed on roads. Sumpter and Clough said they know people who choose to only use trails now, for fear of being struck by a vehicle.

"You don't see a lot of people cycling on roads over here, and that's because everybody's had their brush-by (near collision)," Clough said.

John Gray, an avid cyclist from Sioux City, said he bikes on a mixture of roads and trails. But Gray said he knows several friends who now only feel comfortable when biking on trails away from traffic.

Sumpter said there are already many distractions to drivers, such a eating, while motoring on roads with bicyclists, so the rise of technological devices in vehicles is a bad trend for safety.

"It is more dangerous from the devices," Sumpter said.

The number of Iowa bicycle fatalities from people being struck by vehicles was seven in 2014, three in 2015 and seven in 2016, although a few other died in other ways while biking.

"It would be a heck of a lot higher without trails," Sumpter said.

Sumpter cited the number of bicyclists struck by vehicles  at 319 in 2014 and 408 in 2015, while adding the number of bicyclists who get struck is under-reported to law enforcement officials.

Clough said people who bicycle don't expect to ride roads "in a bubble" with guaranteed safety. He said bicyclists know a dog can run out from a farm acreage, knock them over and cause injuries. But when the thing that can hit a bicyclist is a car driven by a person with divided attention, the outcome could be horrific, Clough said.

"You ain't gonna walk away and a helmet isn't going to save you," Clough said.

Sumpter said it has been a slow progression over years for drivers to recognize the law requires sharing roads with bicyclists. The Sac County Sheriff's Office on Tuesday shared a Facebook post of the Iowa Department of Transportation, which read, "It's a great day to get out on your bike. Motorists and bicyclists both have a responsibility to watch out for each other. Share the road!"

Clough said several factors resulted into his move onto biking only on trails. He said people near Ida Grove have never been good about sharing roads with bicyclists, then cell phones took away some of their attention. The acceptance of smart phones with more technology options was the third element in the timeline, and Clough said distracted driving has become too prevalent in the last three years.

Clough uses the short Pleasant Valley Trail in Ida Grove, but often drives 25 miles to unpack his bike and use the Sauk Rail Trail in Lake View in Sac County, which is a longer trail that passes through pleasant nature areas in linking south to Carroll County.

"I can ride without feeling like I am going to lose my life," Clough said.

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