Cullen Detamore, 18 years old and the father of a toddler son, was killed on October 24th when he was run over by a right turning fire truck while riding his bicycle. Mr. Detamore, "Was riding his bike next to the fire truck traveling southbound on Lakemont Avenue, when the truck went to make a right turn," according to a local television station. He was killed when he was run over by the rear wheels of the truck. It seemed that Mr. Detamore was the victim of a driver who turned right without looking in his right rear view mirror for bicyclists. If Mr. Detamore was riding along side the large vehicle when it began its turn he possibly had little time to stop or veer out of the way. Rather than considering the truck driver's failure to look to his right before turning as the cause of this incident, the Orlando Sentinel focused its coverage on the fact that Mr. Detamore was riding that mechanism of mayhem, a fixed gear bicycle. The paper's headline read, Bicyclist Killed By Fire Engire Was Riding Illegally On Bike With No Brakes. Quoting a law enforcement spokesperson the paper stated, "Cullen Detamore was riding a baby-blue racing bicycle designed for indoor tracks. . . The only way to stop on such bicycles is to 'put your feet down or fall over' -- which is why the law requires bicycles ridden on roadways to have working brakes." Further along in the story is considerable mention of how upsetting the event was for fire department personnel. Only passing reference was made of the child Mr. Detamore left behind. There was no reference to whether he was married, or how upsetting his death was for his family and friends.
An illegal bike? This young man must have had a death wish, right? Of course not. If Mr. Detamore was riding a "bicycle designed for indoor tracks" then it had a fixed gear drive train. That means, assuming he was riding with a sensible gear ratio (more on that later), he was riding with a braking system entirely compliant with Florida law which states:
Every bicycle must be equipped with a brake orbrakes that allow the rider to stop within 25 feet froma speed of 10 mph on dry, level, clean pavement[§316.2065(14)].
Fixed gear bikes do not have freewheels so the rider cannot coast. Instead, the bike's rear cog is fixed to the rear wheel so that if the rear wheel is spinning so is the cog. When the bike is moving, either forwards or backwards, the chain is turning, the pedals are spinning and the rider's legs are working. The bicycle's drive train, consisting of the fixed rear cog, chain, cranks, pedals and the rider's legs, act as a braking system, one that works better than the uninitiated may think. It is quite possible, and in fact common, to quickly stop pedaling, locking up the rear wheel and bringing the bike to a complete skidding stop. A fixed gear bicycle is entirely compliant with Florida's (and Illinois') law regarding bike brakes. The reasonableness of riding with a fixed gear braking system is not as controversial was one might think. At least one U.S. jurisdiction rewrote its vehicular law to accommodate fixed gear bicycle riders. Amended in July, 2006 Washington D.C.'s vehicle code states:
Each bicycle shall be equipped with a brake which enables the operator to cause the braked wheels to skid on dry, level, clean pavement; provided, that a fixed gear bicycle is not required to have a separate brake, but an operator of a fixed gear bicycle shall be able to stop the bicycle using the pedals.18 DCMR 1204.1Not only was Mr. Detamore's bike likely compliant with Florida law, his ability to brake or not brake may have had nothing to do with his death. As noted above, according to at least one account, he was riding along side the fire truck when the vehicle turned. It is not clear whether the truck utilized its turn signal, or how quickly it initiated its turn. The bicyclist may have had little reason to anticipate that the truck was about to turn in front of him. He may not have been able to stop in time to avoid the collision no matter what sort of braking system his bike was equipped with. Unfortunately, none of this is mentioned in the Sentinel's article.
In my opinion, fixed gear bikes are legal. . . usually. Stopping one of these bikes is not exceptionally difficult. (Even this 40 something year old lawyer can do it.) But it takes some practice before the novice rider gets the hang of it. It feels weird at first and the rider must remember to use his or her legs to stop. Also, the bike's gear ratio must be considered. Some gear ratios will make it nearly impossible to bring the bike to a quick stop. For example, a front chainring with 53 teeth and a rear cog with 13 teeth is going to be almost impossible to bring to a skid stop. It is way too efficient. Much of the energy exerted to the cranks is transmitted to the rear cog and wheel. On the other hand, riding with a gear ratio of 46/18 will make it much, much easier to accelerate and stop. And let's be clear, if you cannot successfully bring your fixed gear bike to a skid stop then, unless you have an additional braking system on the bike, you are not in compliance with a statute like the one in Florida, and in Illinois. But riding a fixed gear bike does not necessary make the cyclist a reckless scafflaw.