NICHOLASVILLE — Some 43,000 motor vehicles travel U.S. 27 in northern Jessamine County each day, and cyclist Cherokee Schill is pedaling among them on her workday commute.
Except for shouted curses from passing motorists — "I've been called every name in the book," Schill said — the 18-mile, 75-minute commute from her Nicholasville duplex to a factory on Lexington's north side has been collision-free since she began the route last June.
But in the last two months, police have cited Schill three times for careless driving. Each citation says that Schill was riding in the middle of the right lane, rather than riding to the right. Assistant Jessamine County Attorney Heather Holman asked a judge to prohibit Schill from riding her bike on U.S. 27 until her first trial on Aug. 22, but District Judge Janet Booth ruled this week that Schill could continue to ride until then.
Schill, 41, said if there were an easier way to get to work, she would take it. Her 1992 Toyota Camry with 360,000 miles is not dependable. To be able to afford housing and food for herself and two teenagers, the divorced mother said commuting by bike keeps her household afloat.
"I'm not putting myself here because I think it's fun or exciting," Schill said of the commute. "I'm here because I've got two kids to feed and a roof to put over their head. ... I've got to pay rent, pay bills and buy groceries."
She checked into riding Lextran's commuter service from Nicholasville, but the first bus doesn't leave Sam's Club until 6:15 a.m. She must report to work by 6.
"I've tried to get people to carpool with me," she said. "I've offered people gas money. It's not convenient for them. When you're dependent on other people, it's on their time. This keeps me independent. It keeps me from having to make that choice of 'Do I buy groceries or do I buy gas?'"
So she gets up at 4 a.m. to get to work by 5:30, and then have some time to cool down and put on her work uniform. She is on the production line of Webasto, which makes sunroofs for cars.
Randy Thomas, president of the Bluegrass Cycling Club, said Schill is operating within her legal rights and in accordance with safety requirements. Asked if he would ride U.S. 27, Thomas said, "I personally am not going to comment. I ride all over the area, and I'm sure I ride roads that cyclists wouldn't feel comfortable on. It's irrelevant what I would do or what anyone else would do, if she's riding within her rights and what she's comfortable in doing."
Thomas did say that "as a club, we try to select routes that are less traveled. As club rides, we don't use heavily traveled roads just because it's not real practical for us."
While Schill has a legal right to the road, law enforcement takes the position that it's not wise to ride such a heavily traveled artery.
"It's an accident waiting to happen, in my opinion," said Jessamine County Sheriff Kevin Corman. "It boils down to a common sense thing more than anything else. We have a concern for her as well as everybody else. A person that comes up on her, she's not as easy to see. When they come up on her all of a sudden and they maybe swerve to go around her, the next thing you know the car behind that car has to react that much quicker."
The Nicholasville Police Department alone has worked 1,187 vehicle collisions on U.S. 27 from the Fayette County line to the "north junction" of the Nicholasville Bypass from Jan. 1, 2010, through April 23. Of those, 250 involved injuries, and five involved fatalities, according to state records.
Schill's first citation came March 13, when a Nicholasville police officer was dispatched to multiple calls about a "reckless driver riding slowly in the center of the lane on U.S. 27 on a bicycle."
"The violator has been advised on multiple occasions as to the requirements for bicycles to ride to the right," the officer wrote. "The violator advised that she refuses to do so."
Then, on April 18, Jessamine County Deputy Sheriff Todd Sponcil responded to a call of suspicious activity at Farmers Bank. While on the way to the bank, Sponcil noticed that traffic on U.S. 27 was swerving into the left lane. Sponcil said in court records that he saw Schill riding her bike in the center of the right lane.
When he received a call that everything was okay at the bank, Sponcil doubled back on 27 and stopped Schill. After issuing a citation, Sponcil said Schill signaled that she was pulling back onto U.S. 27.
"The defendant acted with blatant disregard for her own safety and the safety of the other drivers on U.S. 27," Holman said in her motion.
Later that day, Nicholasville police Officer Erik Cobb saw Schill on U.S. 27 "close to the center of the roadway ... causing unnecessary risk to herself and other motorists on U.S. 27."
For these reasons, Holman asked Judge Booth to prohibit Schill from riding her bike on 27 "during the pendency of this case," or, in the alternative, to require her to travel only on the shoulder.
Booth denied the motion. During a hearing, "all witnesses agreed that she (Schill) has the legal right to be on the highway in the right lane," Booth wrote.
"The question is whether or not her continued operation of her bicycle on this roadway creates such a safety concern that she should be deemed a careless operator on the highway, requiring prohibition of said operation," Booth wrote. "This question goes to the heart of the controversy."
Booth said a jury, not a judge, is the "trier of fact." As such, Booth wrote that it would be inappropriate to enter a pretrial order restraining Schill's ability to legally ride her bike on U.S. 27 "prior to the ultimate findings by the jury."
Schill said she thought Booth's decision was fair. She insists she rides in the right third of the right lane, "as far as practicable."
Neither Schill's attorney, Chuck Ellinger, nor Jessamine County Attorney Brian Goettl would comment on the court case. However, Goettl said Jessamine County Judge-Executive Neal Cassity has sent a letter to the Kentucky Transportation Center at the University of Kentucky to investigate the possibility of putting bike lanes on 27 from Nicholasville to the Fayette County line.
Meanwhile, Schill's children, Elena, 14, and Nathan, 17, said they have confidence in their mother's ability to navigate safely.
"I'm happy she's getting exercise," Elena said. "But people are so stupid on the road. One time we were just riding on the road and this guy was just laying on his horn, laying on it. And we were like 'Go around! Go around!'"
"It's her mode of transportation," Nathan said. "U.S. 27 is not that bad. I've ridden it on multiple occasions."
For her part, Schill said, "Ninety nine percent of the people on the road are not homicidal maniacs. They're everyday people and they drive with care.
"But there's that 1 percent that don't. Those are the people who ... are honking their horn, flashing their high beams, or following too closely, and they're trying to push you to go faster.
"It's not really a matter of who owns the road. It's about everybody sharing what's given to everybody."