Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on August 19th, 2011 at 11:39 am
"It's clear to me he has aggressive intentions and who knows what will happen next time I'm riding (or anyone else) on that road... Point is that I felt threatened and I'm sure I'm not the only one out there."
— Brianna Walle
A man who lives on a narrow rural road in the foothills leading up to Skyline Blvd just north of the Helvetia area has become a lightning rod for community activism. People accuse him of repeated aggressive behaviors while driving his pickup near people riding bicycles, and some are concerned that it's only a matter of time before his alleged verbal aggression and menacing actions lead to someone getting hurt.
It's common for people on bike-related email lists to share experiences they've had while riding; but this one was different. The person accused of the aggressive (and illegal) behavior has been publicly identified as Scott Wheeler, a man who has written letters to his neighborhood newsletter about his interpretation of Oregon traffic law (he maintains that bicycles must pull off the road when a motor vehicle is trying to pass), and he has even filed a complaint with the Oregon State Bar against noted bike lawyer Ray Thomas for allegedly "circulating misleading legal information to the public."
It started with a message from Portlander Brianna Walle to the Oregon Bicycle Racing Association email list on Monday. Walle's email (forwarded to the list by OBRA Executive Director Kenji Sugahara) began with, "Be careful riding on NW Rock Creek Road."
Walle went on to describe her experience of being "tailed" and honked at aggressively while riding down the hilly, narrow road that's very popular for bicycling...
"I pulled to the far edge (borderline gravel) and signaled to pass (no on-coming traffic and at this point we were on a flat). He would not pass so I kept riding a SLOW pace (5 mph) until he felt comfortable to pass. He continued to honk and started creeping up on my back wheel. At this point, I do not know what he wants and I'm freaking out.
So I pull over into ditch/gravel and expected him to stop and explain what's going on. He revs up and blasts past me w/in inches of my face. That freaked me out."
Walle did the same ride last Thursday and said the same guy "crept up" on her and started "aggressive honking" again. This time, once the man finally passed, he and Walle stopped and spoke with each other...
"He started yelling out some statute... "You are a slower moving vehicle and MUST pull over to side of road since you are slower than traffic! I can't pass you on a double line." As I started to explain my reasoning, he drove off."
This time around, Walle got his license plate number and called the police. She has since shared his home address, name, license plate number, and a description of his vehicle (a red Toyota Tundra sometimes towing a trailer) with the OBRA list with the intent to "inform our community."
"It's clear to me he has aggressive intentions and who knows what will happen next time I'm riding (or anyone else) on that road," Walle wrote, "Point is that I felt threatened and I'm sure I'm not the only one out there."
She's not. Other people have chimed in with similar experiences.
Steve Holmes wrote that, "I have also ran into this guy on more than one occasion, my wife on two occasions." Holmes says, "His latest tactic is to sit on the bike wheel and blare his horn for as long as he feels or you go into the ditch."
Another message was posted by Joe Tysoe. "I had a run in with the same driver on Monday night on NW Cornelius Pass and Skyline," he wrote, "He tailed me closely... while I hugged the white line honking at me continuously... I got off my bike at the church and he began reciting the ORS..." (Tysoe says the vehicle and physical description of the driver matched with Walle's account.)
Walle's email has sparked a discussion about Oregon traffic law, road rage, and how the community should respond to this situation. It also sparked some citizen sleuthing that has uncovered much more about
One respondent pointed out a letter back in April published in the Skyline Ridge neighborhood association newsletter titled, "Bicyclists Should Obey Traffic Laws." The letter, written by Scott Wheeler, shared his interpretation of ORS 811.425. Wheeler wrote that he feels the law means a "bicycle must pull off the roadway when being overtaken by a vehicle in that same lane if it is traveling slower than the speed limit." Wheeler added that compliance with that law by the "bicycling community" would, "greatly reduce the chances of road rage, potential injury, and would make our roadways safer in general."
(Photo © J. Maus)
The problem is that people on bicycles are not subject to Oregon's slower moving vehicle law, at least according to lawyer Ray Thomas, a noted expert on bike law. On his website, Thomas has attempted to debunked Wheeler's interpretation of the law. Thomas doesn't feel the law applies to bicycle operators, in part because it uses the term vehicle "drivers" not "riders."
It's a stand that has gotten Wheeler's attention.
Wheeler filed a complaint against Thomas with the Oregon State Bar on June 1st, 2011. According to the complaint, Wheeler asked the OSB to censure Thomas for "circulating misinformation" to the public. Wheeler requested that the OSB shut down Thomas' website, remove two articles, and that Thomas' firm pay for a $3 million educational campaign to "counteract the effects of a decade of misinformation on their website."
Wheeler's complaint was denied by the OSB. "We find no professional misconduct," wrote OSB Assistant General Council Scott Morrill on June 7th, "we will take no further action on this matter." The OSB's says Thomas' articles are his opinion and not subject to bar regulation.
In a response letter on June 22nd, Wheeler asked for review of the bar's decision, stating that Thomas' legal opinions are "circulated through the bicycling community." Wheeler attached a print-out of this thread from the BikePortland Forums.
Wheeler's appeal is pending.
Thomas says that if Wheeler is endangering people on the road, "our community needs to use lawful means to obtain law enforcement assistance before he hurts someone." Thomas is no stranger to this situation. Back in 2008, he documented the infamous "Red pickup guy" who had been harassing riders in West Salem. That man was ultimately caught and had his license revoked after he buzzed someone with his side view mirror that just happened to be a deputy sheriff who was directing traffic around a wildfire. The deputy reportedly checked the man's record and noted a history of menacing and roadway harassment.
Other posts to the OBRA email list make it clear that Mr. Wheeler isn't the only resident who harbors disdain for people riding bicycles on nearby roads. One woman, Lynne Cuevas, who rides and lives in the area relayed a recent conversation with neighbors about the issue. The conversation left her very shook up after the neighbors made it clear they do not feel people on bicycles belong on the roads. "Let me be clear here," Cuevas shared, "Do not ride up there alone, these people are ready to hurt you. Of course it will be an accident. Do not challenge them. They are highly pissed and riding there is like bringing a knife to a gun fight."
Many people have now turned to toward working on a solution.
The discussion on the OBRA list has led to talks of a bicycle riders paying for an official "Adopt-a-Road" sign in the area where Wheeler lives. Others feel it's time to initiate the citizen citation process and have Wheeler cited for Menacing and possible other violations. Other ideas that have been shared include picketing in front of Wheeler's home, new "Share the Road" signage, and even a community meeting, "for individuals to express their grievances and suggest directions for improvement."
Susan Peithman, who works on Washington County issues as an advocate with the Bicycle Transportation Alliance has also chimed in. She has laid out several short, near, and long-term solutions to deal with the issue of bikes and cars on narrow rural roads.
The Portland Police Bureau says they could confront Wheeler with a home visit, but that they'd need to investigate the case (including an interview of Ms. Walle) and have probable cause that he has broken a law. According to Lt. Eric Schober, they've hired a new bicycle liaison officer. I think this is a perfect case where that position could come in handy.
Mr. Wheeler might be the exception in terms of his actions around this issue; but, he's far from alone in thinking that people on bikes simply don't belong on narrow, rural roads. Whether it's Sauvie Island, West Union, Forest Grove, Skyline, or any of the other popular rural riding areas around Portland, this is an issue crying out for progress and resolution. Let's hope it happens sooner rather than later.