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Trace safety an issue for bikers

NATCHEZ — The Natchez Trace Parkway has seen three cyclists meet their deaths in the last three years.

And while officials look into why Mississippi is seeing more fatalities than the other Trace states, cyclists and Natchez Trace officials are looking for ways to make the Trace safer for cars, bikes and pedestrians.

Natchez Trace Parkway Association President Tony Turnbow said one key factor is making sure motorists understand that the parkway is not your average thoroughfare.

“We want to try to encourage people to understand that the Natchez Trace is a national park rather than just a road,” Turnbow said. “The space is shared by motorists, cyclists and hikers. People should always be on alert for other uses. Part of the problem is people have come to think of the trace as a commuter road rather than a park, and we have to reemphasize they are driving through a national park.”

Local cyclist Curtis Moroney rides the Trace frequently, and he said there should be cooperation between cyclists and motorists that some people overlook.

“It should be a 50/50 split,” he said. “We should be looking for them, and they should be aware and considerate of us. It’s a partnership. It’s no different than if two drivers were in two separate cars.”

Moroney said that would be ideal, but the reality is cyclists have to be much more aware to protect themselves.

“We are so much more vulnerable than someone in a car,” he said. “So we have to be much more aware and much more participatory in the process.”

Moroney said his main tip for cyclists is to take out their headphones and listen to their surroundings.

“You have got to be aware of everything that is going on around you, and with headphones you are not as in tune with your surroundings,” he said.

Moroney said some people use mirrors on their bikes, helmets or goggles, but he just tries to get a feel for every vehicle with which he comes in contact.

“If I hear a car coming, regardless of where I am, I make sure I know what it is,” he said. “You have to know what they are doing, are they aggressive or are they moving over as they should to give me the space I need.”

Moroney said occasionally there are aggressive drivers who will not move over and give cyclists enough space, but he does not necessarily see that more often on the Trace than on other roads.

“There is nowhere in the country I’d rather ride than the Natchez Trace,” he said. “I don’t think there is any safer cycling road than the Natchez Trace, and on our end of it, I have had no problem.”

Moroney said he has had the occasional driver “buzz” him and pass too close but he said that happens on all roads.

Natchez Bike Club president Allen Richard said his club frequently rides the Trace, and he tries to lay out specific guidelines for new Trace riders.

“We try not to have more than six riders at a time and don’t want to ride more than two-wide in a group,” he said. “Then just pretty much follow the rules of the road as with any vehicle.”

Richard and Moroney both said they encourage people not to ride alone on the Trace.

“I typically don’t encourage anybody to ride alone,” he said. “It’s good to have a riding buddy, because anything can happen.”

Richard said his biggest keys to bike safety are wearing a helmet, staying visible and following the rules of the road.

“I’ve seen even experienced cyclists wear dark jerseys or clothing,” he said. “You have to wear bright clothes and even a simple blinking light on the back of the bike.”

Richard said he has only been buzzed once or twice on the Trace, and he thinks aggressive drivers, overly cautious drivers and distracted drivers are the most dangerous to cyclists and pedestrians.

Turnbow said the National Park Service and the Natchez Trace Parkway Association are working on possible causes and solutions to the safe-cycling issues.