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Thursday, May 31, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Making sharing the Mercer Island loop safer

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

First, education. Then, a citation.

That's the tack Mercer Island is taking to quell conflicts between motorists and cyclists that seems to heat up with the weather each spring.

One City Council member says the initiative targets cyclists unfairly. Another says it's overdue.

The curvy Mercer Way loop around the island is one of the region's most popular bike rides, but there are two persistent problems. Sometimes drivers get stuck behind cyclists, then make unsafe attempts to pass them. And sometimes cyclists don't stop at stop signs.

To dissuade both sorts of scofflaws, Mercer Island police recently sent a letter to cycling groups informing them of stepped-up patrols in areas where violations often occur.

Over the next couple of weeks, officers will warn violators and hand out a brochure. After that they'll include a ticket with the pamphlet, Mercer Island police Sgt. Lance Davenport said.

The fine for blowing through a stop sign on a bike is $91. For making an unsafe pass in a motor vehicle, it's $112.

The new initiative is less stringent than ideas the City Council considered in 2005, which ranged from requiring bikers to ride single file, register large groups with City Hall and staying off the Interstate 90 trail across the island.

The plan "looks good on paper," said David Hiller, advocacy director for the Cascade Bicycle Club. Enforcing laws evenly is difficult, Davenport said, because it's easier to catch a bicyclist going through a stop sign -- a fixed point -- than to observe the driver of a moving vehicle making an illegal pass.

The island's rap for being tough on cyclists is not undeserved, he acknowledged.

"We probably do have a reputation, and yes, we probably make more citations on bicyclists than some of our neighboring communities," Davenport said. Mercer Island's winding roads and popularity with cyclists may make for a high number of violations, he added.

Mercer Island City Councilman Mike Grady disagrees with the emphasis on enforcement. Cyclists aren't a problem, he said: They're a solution to crises like global warming, traffic congestion and childhood obesity.

"We should be bending over backward to have people bike and walk all over the island."

With better bike access to the business district, cyclists might even stop and spend money there, said Grady, a bike commuter who has pushed for bike lanes on the island.

Grady thinks the new enforcement and education effort discourages cycling and is a sign of "this territorial attitude [that] all these bikers come onto Mercer Island as if they're overtaking our community."

But at times, cyclists have taken over the roads, said City Councilman El Jahncke.

He said he's observed cyclists ignoring stop signs "with impunity."

The island's roads compound the risks, he said, and many roads are too narrow to accommodate bike lanes, even if the city could afford them.

Mercer Island has nothing against cyclists, Jahncke said. "We'd just like it to be smaller groups, not the peloton," he added, using the bike-racing term for the main pack of riders.

Amy Roe: 206-464-3347 or aroe@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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