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National cycling advocate has high praise, optimism for autonomous driving technology

December 11, 2020

LynnMemorial-2014-GhostBike

A memorial for Lynn Hartline, who passed away after being struck by a vehicle while on a bike ride in Arizona. Image captured by and used courtesy of Lynn's friend and cycling advocate David Waechter.

David Waechter, an avid cyclist and bike commuter, never expected to become an advocate for nationwide cyclist safety. 

For many years, the Gilbert, Arizona, resident cycled as part of his commute and for fun, completing major rides like the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, better known as RAGBRAI, and the annual Seattle-to-Portland Ride. 

Everything changed in 2014 while on a training ride with his daughter and a close family friend. David, his friend Lynn and his daughter were hit by a driver while riding on a rural northern Arizona road. A senior driver had been trying to pass the three cyclists but swerved into them when approached by an oncoming vehicle. David and his daughter survived. Lynn did not. 

“It started as anger, sadness, and despair,” says Waechter, who maintains a close friendship with Lynn’s family. “After a couple of months of being angry, I felt I needed to do something about this.”

Waechter began educating himself on state "safe passing" laws and began to share content from 3 Feet Please, a national organization dedicated to changing the status quo by serving as a reference point about state-by-state cyclist safety laws. 

The name of the organization comes from the minimum distance that 34 states require drivers to provide when passing cyclists. Only Pennsylvania mandates more minimum distance: four feet. 

When the original founder of 3 Feet Please, who was based in Florida, asked David to consider taking over the campaign, he shadowed him for a while and stepped up. David’s ultimate goal is to prevent more tragedies like the one that took Lynn’s life. 

Sharing the Road is a Shared Responsibility

“The amount of guilt that drivers carry with them for their entire lives for having hit, injured, and possibly killed someone is pretty intense,” Waechter says. “The best thing is if we can just avoid this for everyone.”

With nationwide cycling and bicycle sales on the rise since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, David emphasizes that understanding cyclist safety is more important than ever. For drivers, that means sharing the road with cyclists, waiting until it’s safe to pass them, and giving them plenty of space when passing. 

Cyclists have a role to play. Waechter also urges cyclists to take steps to maximize their own safety. He reminds cyclists that they are considered vehicles by law and should come to a stop at stop signs and stop lights and follow traffic safety laws. He says cyclists should also use lights and make sure they are highly visible. 

“If we are going to bring down the number of deaths related to cycling, it is a shared responsibility,” Waechter says. 3 Feet Please helps cyclists stay visible with a line of high-visibility jerseys designed to be seen from a far distance.

AV Technology Could Offer a Potential Cyclist Safety Solution

Waechter, who travels several times a year to put flowers at the site of the accident in Cornville, Arizona, believes that autonomous driving technology could help improve road safety for cyclists. He explains that he came to this opinion based on his own personal experience as a cyclist sharing the road with Waymo’s fully autonomous vehicles in Metro Phoenix.

“I was going through a residential area where there was no center line and cars parked on both sides,” Waechter explains. A Waymo approached him from behind. “I thought if this vehicle tries to pass me, the same thing could happen that happened in 2014.”

But, Waechter says, the Waymo vehicle didn’t try to pass him when it wasn't safe to do so. The Waymo Driver, what Waymo calls its autonomous driving system, is designed to respond to fellow road users, including cyclists, and make the most appropriate driving decision.

“If it were a human in that driver seat, it would have definitely tried to pass me,” he explains. 

Waechter says he also experienced several other occasions where Waymo waited to pass him until it was safe to do so. He says he noted how, in contrast to human drivers who speed and drive distracted, the Waymo Driver is constantly vigilant.

“That is the beauty of the Waymo Driver: those cameras are not distracted,” Waechter explains. “All of that combined experience and knowledge behind what to do is programmed into every car… it is not the 16-year-old driver who just got their license and has only driven 12 miles.”

Waechter says he sees how Waymo’s technology could help people who cannot drive themselves, or for whom driving is no longer safe, by letting them remain passengers.

“I am a hope-filled person that this technology gets shared and gets incorporated into other vehicles,” Waechter says. “If Waymo had been around and vehicles had been available, the driver of the vehicle involved in my 2014 accident would have probably been the candidate for a vehicle that had that technology. If it had existed, I believe Lynn would still be here.”