EAST HARWICH — On Monday afternoon, a small crowd of young men and women gathered outside the Wequassett Inn, where they work under the J-1 student visa program, to talk about bicycle safety. They learned about the rules of the road, bike maintenance and nighttime riding, but organizers hope they also learned something else.
“We just want you guys to be safe,” Harwich Police Lt. Kevin Considine said.
The training session, one of a number held recently, is part of a regional effort to teach foreign student workers about bicycle and pedestrian safety. While the training was designed to be engaging and easy, the topic was serious. Each year, there are countless close-calls between motorists and cyclists on busy Cape roadways. Several years ago, a young woman from Czechoslovakia, in Orleans on a J-1 student visa, lost both of her legs when she was unable to stop her bicycle and was struck by a large truck.
Local police, civic groups and churches have been collaborating on J-1 bike safety for years, and now the Massachusetts Department of Transportation has launched a new partnership with employers like Stop and Shop, Wequassett and Chatham Bars Inn. Participants receive free helmets donated by their employers, bike lights donated by the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority and Snow's Home and Garden, and reflective backpacks.
They also learn key rules of the road, like the need to ride with traffic on the right side, to stop at red lights, and to yield to pedestrians.
“All my officers were encountering a lot of J-1s who were riding their bikes the wrong way,” Orleans Police Lt. Kevin Higgins said. It's customary to ride against traffic in some countries, and in other places, cars and bikes both operate on the left side. Together with the stress of starting a new job in unfamiliar surroundings, often with late hours, learning bike safety can be overwhelming.
“They've got sensory overload when it comes to being in the United States,” he said.
At the J-1 sessions, representatives of local cycle shops are on hand to inspect bikes and to talk about the importance of maintaining working brakes and chains and having properly inflated tires. They help students learn the proper way to wear helmets, and even give tips about how to keep from messing up their hair while riding. Many young people eschew safety equipment because they don't “look cool” wearing it, said Richard Fries of the Mass. Bicycle Coalition.
“Job one is, we want you to know the route,” Fries told the students. “If you're lost, you're in danger.”
Considine said some of the roads often used by J-1 workers are curvy, poorly lit at night, and traveled by fast-moving cars, “especially around the Wequassett here.”
Jimmy Ponte of Chatham Hood Bikes said any reputable bike shop would be glad to inspect bikes for safety problems.
“You guys came a long way,” he said. “Your family wants you home safe.”