Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Ride of Silence (Singapore) - 20 May 2009

"A cyclist with a cause," by Agatha Koh Brazil [agatha@mediacorp.com.sg].
Today, 12 May 2009


SOON after he arrived in Singapore in 2007, Benoit Valin got a bicycle to ride to his office at Buona Vista. Just as quickly too, on a rainy October day, he was rendered a bloody mess along Portsdown Road by a motorist who turned without looking.

Then the motorist in the car behind honked at him to get out of the way. "She well saw that I had blood on my head and other parts of my body, but she waved her fist to threaten me," says the 31-year-old Canadian.

That wasn’t the only incident for the dedicated "bike commuter". "Commuting is the only time I can ride my bike. Unfortunately, it is also the most dangerous time of the day (to do so)." Other close calls include one in January when a driver shot across three lanes of Commonwealth Avenue and Benoit had to swerve to avoid him. In doing so, he had to "touch" the car to avoid being hit by a bus. That enraged the motorist who "chased down" the road for about a kilometre. "Then he came out of the car, fists in the air,” recalls the Ottawa native.

In February, along Bukit Timah Road, a driver shot across two lanes and narrowly avoided clipping him. "At the light, I knocked on his window to talk. He did the 'I’ve done nothing wrong, you’re on the road and you have no place here' speech," says Benoit. "That about sums it up. This happens about every week, but I don’t make a fuss about them ... only when they really have to be educated."

May 20 is when he hopes this will happen. That is when Ride of Silence Singapore - he is the organiser - will kick off at 7pm from Merlion Park at Clifford Pier. Attending riders will dress in white and ride - in silence - to honour those killed or injured while cycling on public roads. Last year, there were about 22 such deaths here, and this year, the figure already stands at six, says Benoit. It is expected to increase with the escalating popularity of cycling.

The riders here will join others worldwide in a silent slow ride on May 20 to raise the awareness of motorists and other road users as well as that of the authorities. The first ride originated in the United States city of Dallas, after endurance cyclist Larry Schwartz was killed when hit by the mirror of a passing bus. Officials from the Safe Cycling Task Force will also join in. The route (yet to be approved) will cover 19km or so.

Cycling for Benoit has been a 14-year “love story”. At 17 and at college, he needed money, so he started cycling extensively as a messenger in Ottawa. At university in Boston, he volunteered for Bikes Not Bombs, a not-for-profit organisation that recycles old bikes for third-world countries. Graduate school between 2001 and 2006 meant never staying long enough in a place to sustain a devotion to a cause. Until Singapore, where he saw "how road, and cycling safety could improve the quality of life for everyone".

That encounter in February made the bachelor decide to dedicate his spare time to cycling safety. He then had a cause, but no means to reach out. "Changing the world by yourself, when all you see is the same five people every day is very difficult," says the bioinformatics scientist for a pharmaceutical company. In April, he received an email from Canada’s National Capital Commission, advertising the Ride of Silence. "It was an epiphany. I found the means to unite people in support for a cause that affects everyone," he says.

There have been 100 responses from his Facebook group so far. Minister of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) Vivian Balakrishnan is scheduled to be present, as is Senior Parliamentary Secretary for MCYS and Ministry of Transport, Mr Teo Ser Luck.

Benoit clocks about 1,000km a month riding from his Bukit Batok home to Buona Vista. When the 200km of park connectors are completed by 2015, "Singapore will become a world-class haven for cyclists." "Unfortunately, park connectors don’t go everywhere. They cover only 60 per cent of my commute. The challenge is coping with traffic and the dangers of traffic." That means drivers of every ilk, as well as pedestrians, especially "those who zig-zag between cars at lights and pop up without warning". Cyclists who ride at night without lights and reflectors, wearing dark clothes, and those who ride against traffic and through lights are at fault, too.

Benoit is keen that helmets be worn, and made mandatory for riders under 12. "Deaths can never be reduced to zero. Drivers need to learn how to communicate their intentions clearly to cyclists (and vice versa). The rules of the road need to be clearer so they can be respected. Only then can roads be safer." Cycling safety should be incorporated into driving classes and tested during the theory test. Physical education teachers too, should teach cycling safety, he says.

"On a bicycle, safety means staying alive."

Singapore’s first such ride was in 2006, started by Jimi Loh. But the rides were never registered with the US and not publicised. Benoit and Mr Loh will work together next year. For details visit www.rideofsilence.org

Email your views to voices@mediacorp.com.sg

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