WELLFLEET — Increasingly, statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) indicate that America’s roads are safe only for those who drive on them. In 2018 for the second year in a row cyclist and pedestrian fatalities increased while motorist fatalities dropped slightly.
Preliminary 2018 data from the NHTSA show that an estimated 36,750 people died in motor vehicle accidents last year, representing a decrease of roughly one percent compared with 2017. During this time period vehicle-miles traveled increased by about half a percent, while bicyclist fatalities are projected to have increased by 10 percent. In 2017, there were 11 bicyclist fatalities in the commonwealth. This was up slightly from the 10 fatalities reported in 2016.
Many members of the Outer Cape’s seasonal workforce and some year-round residents rely on bicycles as their sole form of transportation and their only way to get to work and take care of day-to-day necessities.
“We have on average a dozen staff members who rely full-time on bicycles for transportation,” said Tracey Barry Hunt, a member of the Wellfleet Bike and Walkways Committee, and co-owner with her husband, Phillip, of Winslow’s Tavern in Wellfleet. “Safety is a huge concern for us. In any given season it’s roughly half our staff who do not have vehicles and rely exclusively on bikes for their summer transportation.”
Hunt and her husband meet with staff at the start of the season to discuss the dangers of biking in Wellfleet.
“They don’t necessarily understand — it looks like a very bucolic, safe, small New England town,” she said. “And in theory it is. But the roads are narrow and we have a lot of people coming from other places accessing I-95 to get here, and they don’t necessarily understand that they can’t drive that way here.”
Hunt does not let her own children bike in town between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
As controversy continues over the proposed bike path extension from its current end behind the former South Wellfleet General Store to a parking lot two miles north on Route 6, the conversation has been focused mainly on recreational safety. Information from the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, which is funded by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, highlights the fact that, historically, many low-income and underserved populations have been left out of conversations about transportation planning. The center states that this, in turn, has led to unsafe conditions for pedestrians and cyclists.
“When I first lived here 20 years ago all I had was a bike,” said Wellfleet resident Paula Erickson. “I found myself on Route 6 a lot, and I had a couple of really scary experiences where I was run off the road by a big truck.”
Neily Bowlin, originally from Jamaica, worked seasonally in Wellfleet for two decades before moving to town full-time last year.
“Most people I know do have a way of getting to work other than a bike if they have to use Route 6,” he said. “Those who work in town and can get around without going on the highway use bikes, but otherwise they don’t even attempt it.”
Bowlin said that the potential for injury and missed work is a huge deterrent for a seasonal H-2B workforce whose top concern is putting away money to send back home. “They’re here to earn a certain amount and they can’t afford a day or a week of not showing up,” he added.
Police Chief Ronald Fisette said he is very concerned about bike safety in town at night.
“What I have is people transitioning with work, people who work in the restaurants and hospitality business,” he said. “They usually have a dark uniform they have to wear, so dark pants, dark shirts, and at the end of the shift they bike home in this uniform. That’s a real concern so we try to help with reflective vests or reflective gear. We ask if they have lights, are they on the right side of the road — we try to educate.”
The Wellfleet Police Dept. hosts a meeting every year when J-1 visa workers first arrive to talk about bike safety and to work with business owners to let people know that vests, helmets, and lights are available. Fisette said officers on the night shifts who spot bikers without these things stop and give out lights.
Kevin Reed, a cook at Winslow’s Tavern who arrived this spring from South Africa, said, “Daytime is easy. But at night there are a lot of risks. There’s no turn lights — you have to wait a long time, and to get to where I live, I have to choose whether to ride the wrong way on Route 6 for a short time or to cross.”
When it comes to the proposed bike path extension, he said that for him “anything that gets me off of Route 6 is a big help.”
Co-worker Sean Moylan from Michigan is also here for a first season. “I’ve been doing seasonal work all over the country for five, six years and I travel with just my bike,” he said. “As far as how Wellfleet compares, I am more scared on the highway here than I have been anywhere else.”
Statistics from the U.S. Dept. of Transportation indicate that 87 percent of recent pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities in the state occurred on roads with posted speeds of 30 miles an hour or higher. The posted speed limit on Route 6 in Wellfleet is 45 mph in most sections.
“I do use the rail trail, but a lot of times for expedience I’ll shoot down Route 6,” said Tom McDonough, a full-time Wellfleet resident who relies on his bike year-round to get to and from his carpentry jobs in both Wellfleet and neighboring towns.
“Distracted driving is increasing,” McDonough said. “But I choose to go out and interact, and I try to traverse intelligently.”