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Cyclist’s Death Rallies Advocates 

Greg Jennings was bicycling home to Blue Lake Monday evening after work, on Highway 299, when a pickup drifted onto the shoulder and struck and killed him.

Jennings’ death has sent shock waves through the tight-knit community of bicycling commuters, and beyond, with many people saying it’s time the community at large gets serious about improving conditions for non-motorists.

"I’m really shaken up," said Kelley Kyle, who commutes three times a week to work along the 101 corridor between Arcata and Eureka. "I think every commuter’s worst fear is to know we’re so vulnerable. It’s pretty shocking, it’s sad, it’s scary."

Even Humboldt County Coroner Frank Jager was struggling with the implications of Jennings’ death.

"God, that case bothers me," Jager said Tuesday morning. "Here’s a guy that’s riding down the road, he’s doing everything he can -- he’s wearing bright clothing, he’s wearing a helmet, he’s way over on a wide shoulder. And he still gets hit. There was no reason for it. He was so far over on the shoulder, a five-foot section of [pavement], he was almost in the grass. The sun was behind him, so he wasn’t blinded."

The CHP was still investigating the collision Tuesday, but its news release said that the driver of the pickup was Alan Bear, 27, of Hoopa.

Jennings was 42. He worked as a forest ecologist for the Bureau of Land Management, and he was a dedicated bicycle commuter, said his friend Jen Rice, co-director of the Redwood Community Action Agency’s Natural Resources Services. Rice is a key advocate for local trails and bicycle and pedestrian safety. She said while Jennings himself wasn’t necessarily an activist, he had a close connection to cycling.

"He built his own bicycle, and he inspired others around him to commute by bike," she said. "He also helped us with the Headwaters Trail, as a BLM staffer."

Jennings’ death has galvanized the cycling community, Rice said, with e-mails flying back and forth. "We as a community can do better to work with law enforcement, transportation planners and motorists," she said. "Across the country there’s really a movement toward affecting behavior, toward making motorists aware of bicyclists and pedestrians -- and making cyclists and pedestrians more aware, too. It’s about creating a culture that supports bicycling and walking ... where it’s respected and honored."

Rice said a recent study shows that use of the Hammond Trail has doubled in the past 10 years. Use of other trails, and roads, may have gone up as well, but Rice said there aren’t any good numbers yet on that, which makes it hard to tell planners where the issues are. However, she said, this week the Federal Transportation Administration is actually conducting an audit of non-motorist use on Broadway in Eureka -- where just this July a Caltrans worker was hit. Rice added that if the long-desired Annie and Mary Trail had been built along the old railroad bed between West End Road and Blue Lake, Jennings could have avoided the collision that killed him.

But trails are only part of the solution, she said. Melanie Williams, who works with Rice at RCAA to coordinate Safe Routes To Schools, said trails are important, but they’re no substitute for safety.

"You can’t get everywhere you need to go as a commuter on a bicycle trail, even if there are trails everywhere," she said. "And there are many people in our community that don’t have an option to walk or bike. We have a lot of car-less folks because of the economic conditions. And so there’s a screaming need for planners and for engineers, and safety officers and the DA’s office, all to be at the same table looking at the safety of non-motorists. How they plan, how they educate the public, how they press charges when collisions happen -- all of those things are of a piece, and they all need to be working together to create safe passage."

Williams said the RCAA is trying to raise funds to run public service announcements on radio, TV and billboards that would help create a friendlier motorist-non-motorist culture.

"But that’s expensive, and we need help from the entities whose responsibility is to protect cyclists or pedestrians or to educate motorists," she said.

So far, nobody official has stepped up to help, she said.

Meanwhile, a different kind of awareness campaign is grimly gaining ground in other communities, including Portland: the "ghost bike," a spray-painted impression of a cyclist and flowers at spots where a cyclist was killed by a car.

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Heidi Walters

Heidi Walters worked as a staff writer at the North Coast Journal from 2005 to 2015.

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