DULUTH -- When a driver threatened Jessie Diggins, an Olympic gold medalist in cross-country skiing and Minnesotan native, and her training partner as they roller skied near Afton, Minn., last month, Diggins detailed the account on her blog.
The post went viral, and the driver was charged with reckless driving, careless driving, disorderly conduct and nuisance on a public roadway.
For roller skiers, cyclists and pedestrians who say they experience angry, distracted, rude and dangerous drivers all too often when sharing the road with vehicles, it was a rare case where the driver was held responsible.
Maria Stuber, the College of St. Scholastica's head Nordic ski coach, sees similar scenes play out every fall as the team roller skis on the edge of quiet roads outside of town as they wait for enough snow to ski on trails. Stuber said the team can almost always count on drivers honking at athletes, aggressively accelerating as they pass, yelling obscenities at them, throwing something out the window, or passing too closely - buzzing - the team.
“It is really like a life-flashing-before-your-eyes experience when these kids get buzzed by cars,” Stuber said.
So the team takes precautions: Everyone is required to wear bright, fluorescent clothes and helmets; coaches put “roller skiers on road” signs to warn drivers; the team skis as a group in a single-file line; and athletes yell “car back” to warn each other of an approaching car.
Even so, the team still deals with drivers harassing or buzzing them.
“One gentleman rolled down his window and said that we needed to get off the road and was driving very close to all of us,“ said Samantha Benzing, a sophomore on the team. ”It made us all feel pretty unsafe.”
They all knew what could have happened, Benzing said. Several years ago, one driver intentionally tried to run an athlete off the road, narrowly missing the skier’s body with his car.
Worse yet, someone could have been hit and killed.
“Everyone has a connection to someone that has died by being on the road,” Benzing said.
Sgt. Ryan Morris, who’s in charge of traffic and crime scene investigations for the Duluth Police Department, said there are legal consequences for a driver’s actions.
“Just the simple yelling out the window and such, depending on what they’re yelling and how it affects the person who’s the victim, there are disorderly conduct laws that we could look at. If they’re throwing something or even buzzing them, there's potential for some type of assault charge,” Morris said, adding that reckless and careless driving statutes would likely also apply.
Morris said that the law requires at least 3 feet of clearance when passing a cyclist or individual, but recommends drivers also slow down and give as much room as possible when passing a cyclist or pedestrian.
“Even if you don’t think they should be in the roadway or aren't happy with it, you want to be safe and not put yourself in a position where you might hit them,” Morris said.
Some drivers believe only vehicles belong on roads and will lash out at other users. But as long as cyclists are traveling with traffic and following the basic travel laws just like a motorized vehicle - stopping at stop signs, obeying traffic signals, signalling turns, etc. - and other pedestrians travel facing traffic, then they have every right to use the road too, Morris said.
Ross Fraboni, a mechanic and ski tech at Ski Hut who bikes between work and his home, said drivers have even stopped his wife while she was riding and told her she wasn’t allowed on the road.
But Fraboni said it’s the drivers distracted by cellphones that worry him most, something that has only gotten worse recently. He takes the Lakewalk instead of city streets whenever possible.
“It’s strange because 10 years ago when (drivers) were aggressive, we were mad ... but now I look back, and I don’t mind the grumpy drivers because they’re paying attention,” Fraboni said.
Both those situations worry cyclists and others who might only be wearing a helmet.
“Having a car come by you that fast - when you're essentially helpless - is terrifying,” Stuber said.