An encounter on a dark road in East Montpelier in late July quickly became an example of the kinds of conflicts that can easily arise between motorists and cyclists in Vermont.
Carl Etnier biked in the center of the lane on U.S. 2 in the post-sunset hours of July 25. The road narrows at a certain point during his 10-mile ride from his job at Goddard College to his home in East Montpelier, and he later said the lane was too narrow for a car to pass him safely. He relied on his four-LED flashing red light and reflectors to make him visible.
Two men in a car came upon Etnier on the two-lane road, which has a speed limit of 50 mph, and began to follow Etnier closely, yelling at him and honking the horn. Etnier quickly turned on the camera he keeps attached to his bicycle helmet to capture any incidents that unfold, he told the Burlington Free Press.
"Get out of the road!" one man yelled at Etnier from the car, as shown in the video. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
Two cars went around Etnier and the car behind him, passing on the other side of the road.
Etnier eventually pulled to the side of the road. The car stopped next to him.
"Are you crazy?" the passenger in the car said while cursing. The man yelled that the vehicle almost "killed you," adding, he and the driver "should" have killed him.
Etnier responded, "What's your name?" as the situation escalated. He later fired back at the men: "You're on candid camera."
Etnier led the men to the nearby fire station, and he said he had the people on duty at the station call the Vermont State Police to settle the disagreement. The men willingly went along with him.
Etnier eventually received a ticket for failing to ride close enough to the right.
No other citations were given, and the state police did not respond to an email seeking the names of the drivers.
Hoping the video captured on his camera changes the state police's minds, biker Etnier plans to fight the ticket.
Vermont law outlines a series of rules in which cyclists should obey many of the same rules as motorists, such as stopping at stop signs and red lights and signaling when making a turn.
When riding in the dark, cyclists also must wear a lamp in the front that emits a white light that is visible from at least 500 feet away, and wear reflectors or a lamp pointing in the opposite direction that is visible from at least 300 feet. The rear lamp should emit a flashing or steady red light, according to Vermont law.
The law also states that bicyclists must ride as near to the right side of the roadway "as practicable," said Jon Kaplan, the bicycle and pedestrian program manager at the Vermont Agency of Transportation. In portions of certain communities, cyclists can ride on the sidewalk, but this is defined by the specific municipality's law, Kaplan added.
For Kaplan, predictability is essential when a bicyclist is riding along a roadway. This ensures safety for the cyclist and for surrounding vehicle drivers.
"I see people ... ride in the road, and then if it's more convenient they get on the sidewalk and use crosswalks," Kaplan said. "That's actually less safe because then, vehicles have no idea what you're going to do."
Kaplan said that hazards, such as the potholes that were along the right side of U.S. 2 on the night of Etnier's incident, could prevent a cyclist from staying on the far right of the road.
A Transportation Agency "Bicycle Commuter's Guide" also outlines several instances in which a cyclist can take the lane, including:
• When traveling at traffic speeds and the cyclist needs to prevent motorists from "inadvertently cutting you off."
• When descending a hill and the cyclist needs extra space due to speed.
• When the lane width does not permit a car behind the cyclist to safely pass.
• When road conditions — such as potholes, road debris or parked cars — prevents a cyclist from riding farther to the right.
Etnier said he was following the rule: The stretch of U.S. 2 in which the incident occurred was narrow, and he also wanted to give himself space to maneuver in case a driver cut him off.
"There's basically very short sight distances," Etnier said. "The fog line on the right side of the road is up against the rock wall, so there's no room to be off the roadway there. ... That's one of the worst places I cycle around here.
"Clearly from the other drivers who passed me with no problems before these other drivers came along, there was no problem seeing me," Etnier added.
At the same time, taking the lane is "generally safest when traveling for short stretches on lower-speed roads," the bike commuter's guide states.
"It's my understanding from media reports that Etnier was riding down the middle of the road due to the narrow shoulder rather than a specific obstruction," Sgt. Trevor Carbo of the Vermont State Police wrote in an email to the Burlington Free Press. "I'm not sure I agree that it's a safer practice to ride down the middle of an unlit 50 mile per hour road in the dark, than the right side of the road."
Carbo said he is unaware of an obstruction along that stretch of road that would require Etnier to take the lane.
Vermont law states that motorists approaching or passing a "vulnerable user," such as a pedestrian or a cyclist, should "exercise due care" by increasing clearance while passing.
By taking the lane, biker Etnier forced vehicles to pass him using the opposite side of the road, but he said this was the safest option for both him and for drivers.
"I was in the middle of the lane to avoid an almost impassibly rough line of pavement on the right side of the right lane," Etnier said. "I wanted to make abundantly clear to drivers to stay behind me until we both could see whether it was safe to pass."
Harassment — such as following a cyclist too closely with a car, crowding the cyclist and throwing objects — also is prohibited by Vermont law. Troopers who investigated the incident the night it happened interviewed Etnier and the two men in the car before ultimately concluding there was no harassment.
"Etnier advised one particular motor vehicle honked their horn and yelled at him to move out of the roadway," Sgt. Carbo of the state police wrote in his email. "This in and of itself is not a violation of law. Mr. Etnier was asked to provide additional information such as any video of the incident to investigating troopers, and he has failed to do so."
Etnier said troopers declined to view the video on his helmet camera that evening because they did not want to plug a foreign object into their computers. He has yet to follow up with the state police to show the video, but he said he has an appointment for Aug. 22.
According to the League of American Bicyclists, Etnier is a certified "smart cycling" instructor and a lifetime member of the league. Etnier said he teaches rules for cycling safely to other cyclists in Vermont. To become certified, spokeswoman Carolyn Szczepanski said, members must complete a nine-hour traffic-skills class and then take part in a three-day seminar.
Etnier said he teaches "vehicular cycling" to his students.
"I teach how to bike effectively and safely in traffic, and legally," he said. "The mantra of the type of cycling I teach is that bicyclists fare best when they act as, and are treated as, drivers of vehicles."
According to Sgt. Carbo, Vermont State Police troopers do not specifically go through a bicycle-safety course, but they are informed of road rules for cyclists and motorists at the police academy. Any updates or changes to the law are announced to troopers through training bulletins.
"Vermont State Police takes bicycle safety very seriously," Carbo wrote. "There is no room for error when it comes to incidents between bicyclists and motor vehicles. If we are provided with additional information that warrants additional actions against others, we will investigate it thoroughly."
Kaplan's Transportation Agency program is working on putting together a curriculum for law enforcement that would make these laws clearer.
"I don't know if the bicycle-related laws are widely understood or enforced consistently," he said
Etnier said he hopes he can get his ticket ripped up. He also hopes his story will elevate public awareness about cyclists' rights.
Contact Elizabeth Murray at 651-4835 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/LizMurraySMC.
See video from the incident at BurlingtonFreePress.com