WATCH: Here's what it looks like when a driver passes a cyclist too closely

Posted at 5:00 AM, Sep 27, 2017
and last updated 2017-10-05 19:35:19-04

CINCINNATI -- If you're traveling between Pleasant Ridge and West Chester during the morning or evening rush, chances are you've seen Fraser Cunningham and his bicycle.

You can't miss him -- his bike is lit up like a Christmas tree.

"I'm just a guy biking to work," Cunningham told WCPO. "I have a flag sticking out three feet with a light on it."

The lights and flag come with good reason. Lack of visibility ranked as one of the leading causes of fatal motorist-cyclist collisions -- which increased by 12 percent nationally in 2015 -- according to the most recent data available from the Governors Highway Safety Association.

The GHSA released the data in a report earlier this year. It also showed that most drivers reported not seeing a cyclist on the road until it's too late, and that collisions often occurred due to inattentiveness by both parties involved.

The 12-percent increase made fatal motorist-cyclist collisions the fastest-growing in that year, but it wasn't all bad news. The data also showed an overall decrease -- including non-fatal -- in collisions between bikes and cars.

Caught on camera

Despite the lights and flag, Cunningham's had some close calls himself. Take a look at this video, which shows a car overtaking him on a narrow two-lane bridge. The first half of the video focuses in on his lighted, three-foot flag, which the driver clips. The second half shows the car pass from Cunningham's perspective.


He started bike commuting to his engineering job at General Electric about a decade ago, he said. He's had an unbroken streak of bike-to-work days four years running.

Since that time, he said he has noticed in drivers a slowly dwindling amount of patience for cyclists using the road.

"I have seen an uptick in aggressive behavior, lack of patience," he said. "I do not know what you want to call it. I have had close shaves and they have been on the uptick. I don't want to get political, but the political polarization. I have seen it change things."

Mounting the cameras to his bike also comes in handy in demonstrating a driver's intent to intimidate a cyclist on the road, he said.

"The other aspect of it is with the cameras on my bike, if someone hits that flag -- and there is a mic on the camera -- you will be able to hear it and then I know it was deliberate," he said. "When I know it is deliberate, I will take the video to the police and occasionally they will prosecute on that video."

Attorney Steve Magas has seen his fair share of close calls and collisions, both firsthand and through his clients. Magas has made a career out of representing Ohio and Kentucky bicyclists who have been struck or are facing other legal issues.

"More people are riding with cameras now. These near misses, you cannot understand how dangerous they are until you see them or feel them," he said. "If you are standing on a sidewalk and a bus goes by me a foot away, that can be a scary thing.

"We call it a punishment pass -- intention to scare or intimidate."

Here's a video Magas reviewed, in which the cyclist is hit by a driver sitting behind him at an intersection on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Clifton. The video demonstrates that the driver was sitting behind the cyclist and followed directly behind him for roughly 15 seconds before the collision occurred:


"It was accidental," Magas said, "But it was typical of how these things happen ... The guy that hit him told his insurance company that this guy came out of nowhere. No, you followed him for 15 seconds from behind before you hit him."

Three feet

Frank Henson -- who heads up Tri-State Trails and formerly with Queen City Bike -- has a very clear message about bicycling in Cincinnati.

"Bicycling is safe," Henson said. "Like any activity with humans being involved, there are going to be incidents that we don't like."

Earlier this year Ohio became the 40th state to enact a three-foot passing law -- hence the length of Cunningham's flag -- which requires motorists give a three-foot cushion when overtaking a cyclist on the road.

"I knew the law was coming," he said. "I actually started using it before it was a law."

Cunningham said the law has made him feel safer, even if the close calls continue.

"It has definitely made me feel safer, no question," he said. "I think the law educated me, too. I found out that a lot of people don't know not to get within three feet of a cyclist. The reason I have known that is they give me room now and it helps the flag is there.

"It does not seem to worry anyone. Every now and then someone will shout at me and that is the way it is."

Like Cunningham, driver education is where attorney Magas sees the three-foot law's real value.

"Are we going to measure success of the three-foot law by tickets? No," he told WCPO. "Success will be measured in education more so than tickets."

Magas said he was hoping for more than just a three-foot law, but feared pushing further would cause the bill to fail in the Ohio General Assembly.

"We would like see a change-lanes-to-pass law, but we did not think we could get that passed by the legislator. We came up with the three foot law instead," he said. In Ohio and Kentucky, it is legal to change lanes -- even across a double-yellow line -- in order to pass a slower-moving vehicle. A change-lanes-to-pass law would make it mandatory.

Beyond three feet

Decking out his bike in bright lights and installing a flag aren't Cunningham's only strategies for gaining motorists' attention.

"I have some tricks," he said. "Generally speaking I hit the road at the same time every day, just so the drivers driving to work and home from work get used to me being there."

Magas was also careful to mention that -- despite the sometimes frightening visuals surrounding close calls and collisions with bicycles -- they are still pretty few and far between.

"Collisions are rare," he said. "In Ohio this year I can tell you there will be about 1,500 crashes that are written up in a crash report with a cyclist and car. There will be 300,000 times this year when cars hit other cars."

Henson said the increase in fatal collisions is -- in part -- a reflection of the increase in cyclists on the road in recent years. He also attributed the increasing size of consumer automobiles on the road.

"I think there are a lot of car drivers who don't have an understanding of where the edge of their cars are," he said.

"The absolute number of incidents is increasing, but that's because more people are out riding," he said. "It requires of us cyclists to be more mindful, and just try to anticipate what could happen."

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation and mobility for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur) and on Facebook.

Chris Riva is an avid cyclist and anchors 9 On Your Side's Good Morning Tri-State.