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Bicyclists call for safer streets in Little Rock 

click to enlarge Tom Ezell image

Diane McConnell, who'd been rendered unconscious since a Nov. 11 accident in which she was hit by a car while riding her bicycle in the Heights, died Tuesday.

On the day of the accident, McConnell was riding her bike home after attending the "Pop Up Main Street" event near downtown. The secretary of the Arkansas Bicycle Club, she'd been an avid bicyclist for decades, taking classes and wearing her helmet and fluorescent vest to try and stay safe.

The day was clear and bright. Approaching the gentle curve on Kavanaugh a block off Cantrell just before 2 p.m., a Ford Fusion came up behind McConnell, then started to pass on the double yellow. We'll probably never know what really happened — whether she was clipped or spooked or just took an unlucky spill at just the wrong moment — but witnesses told police that McConnell's bike fell into the passenger side of the car. According to the accident report, she made contact at the passenger's front door handle of the Ford, then scraped along the side to the rear fender. At that point, she was caught up in the rear wheel of the car and run over.

Since the accident, bicyclists who knew McConnell — some of whom have had their own close calls with cars — have been speaking out, calling for more work and discussion to make the streets of Little Rock safer for bicyclists.

Tom Ezell is a past president of Bicycle Advocacy of Central Arkansas, and had been a friend of McConnell for 10 years. A certified instructor with the League of American Bicyclists, Ezell teaches classes on bicycle safety. He had McConnell in several classes, in fact.

On his laptop, Ezell keeps a long list of all the bicyclists who have been killed in traffic accidents in the state over the past decade, so he can better illustrate for his students the dangers of sharing the road with automobiles. In February 2011, Ezell himself was hit from behind and thrown over his handlebars at a red light near Little Rock City Hall by a motorist who fled the scene. Ezell, who said all he can figure is that the Lord reached down, picked him up off his bike, and put him down in the road, walked away with only a twisted knee. It's a measure of how one bicyclist's spill can be another's grave injury. Ironically, Ezell said, it was Diane McConnell who was the first to reach him to render first aid.

Ezell points out that Arkansas and Little Rock consistently rank low in lists of bicycle-friendly cities. "CNBC two years ago ranked Little Rock as the fourth most dangerous city in the country to try and ride a bike or walk in," he said. In this year's League of American Bicyclists rankings of the most bike-friendly states in the United States, Arkansas came in dead last.

Little Rock's streets are dangerous for bicyclists, Ezell said, because of a combination of factors, including inattentive drivers and speeding. He attributes the excessive speed to the way many streets in the city are designed: wide, unobstructed and open.

"We're used to — I call it — Freeway Driving Mode," Ezell said. "The road's clear? Then hammer down and boogie. When we come off 630, or I-30, or I-40 and get on the [surface] streets, we carry that same mode of behavior with us. ... We need to slow things down by narrowing the street [and] putting in some trees. You create the perception in the driver's mind that he's being tunneled in, and he'll pay a little more attention."

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