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State lawmakers should shift gears on cycling safety

• Jun 12, 2018 at 6:00 PM

With the warmer weather months now firmly upon us, the appearance of bicycles is a very common sight on Michigan roadways and trails.

The trend has been on the upswing in recent years — thanks, in part, to the many non-motorized trails that have been created, and more are in the works.

Many of us enjoy cycling or know people who do, and, naturally, we all want it to be an activity people can do safely.

However, we are concerned with some new legislation that is making its way through the Michigan Legislature that would require motorists passing a cyclist give at least 3 feet of space when doing so, or “if it is impracticable to pass a bicycle at a distance of 3 feet to the left, at a safe distance to the left of that bicycle at a safe speed.”

On its face, the bill seems to be a no-brainer. Why would someone oppose this? But, like many proposed laws, the devil is in the details.

First, we are concerned about the practicality of enforcing this law. Absent a collision, how are police officers going to reliably determine that someone has infringed on this safety buffer? How are officers supposed to measure 3 feet in a real-world situation? Additionally, the alternative “safe distance/safe speed” option seems mighty subjective.

Secondly, we are concerned about a section of the proposed law that would allow motorists to drive left of center to pass a cyclist heading in the same direction “if it is safe to do so, regardless of whether the vehicle is in a no-passing zone.”

While we note that many motorists already occasionally have to drift over a solid yellow line to pass a bicyclist or pedestrian walking along the edge of the road, we also note that no-passing zones are there for a reason. They exist because some sections of road don’t have the necessary sight distance — because of hills or curves or other features — to allow for safe passing. The presence of a cyclist doesn’t eliminate the danger created by the limited sight distance. Because bicycles typically travel at a much slower speed than cars and trucks and are much smaller, we understand that it often takes less time to pass a cyclist and there may be times when a driver can determine that “it is safe to (pass in a no-passing zone.)”

Outside of the enforceability, our issue with this legislation is that it really doesn’t accomplish much in the way of safety.

In fact, we’re a little puzzled about what led to this legislation in the first place.

House Bill 4265 was introduced in February 2017 at least in part in response to a June 7, 2016, incident in Kalamazoo in which nine cyclists were hit by a motorist, killing five of them. The driver in the case was recently convicted on five counts of second-degree murder and driving under the influence causing death stemming from the incident. A forensic scientist testified at the trial that the driver had methamphetamine, muscle relaxers and pain medication in his system at the time of the crash, according to blood samples. Further testimony showed he was driving well over the posted speed limit.

We fail to see how this proposed legislation will prevent tragedies such as the one that happened in Kalamazoo.

If it is serious about making substantive safety improvements when it comes to cycling, we’d encourage the Michigan Legislature to take a more wholistic look at the issue.

Motor vehicles and bicycles are two very disparate vehicle types. Cars and trucks are much larger and operate at much higher speeds than bicycles. Cyclists are not as visible and face a much greater risk of injury in traffic. Putting these types of vehicles together in the same space with essentially the same rights to the road as a motor vehicle just seems like a recipe for disaster.

We acknowledge that answers for this issue that are effective, reasonably implemented and equitable to both motorists and cyclists are not easy to develop. But with hollow remedies, such as this legislation, the Legislature is just spinning its wheels.


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