Friday, April 20, 2012

On the new 4-foot bicycle passing law

A few weeks ago, a new state law, HB170, took effect requiring Pennsylvania motorists to allow four feet of room when passing a bicyclist on a roadway. This was met with a large amount of negativity towards bicyclists, from calls to ban them from streets, to outright threats to mow them down. Indeed, we do have police record of one such case of a motorist repeatedly attempting to run down a cyclist on a Pittsburgh city street. Clearly this is a serious matter.

Let us please dispel the hostility. First and foremost, this is about public safety, the ability for all of us to get from A to B, and arriving at B in the same condition as when having left A. I know too many people, several of them personally, who suffered serious injury or were killed, for simply going about their business while on two wheels, following all the rules. Twenty Pennsylvania cyclists died in 2010 after being hit by cars. This law was needed. It was not developed in a vacuum.

Let us please agree on what this law is not about. We are not talking about cyclists who do not obey the rules. We are not talking about cyclists who endanger other users of the roads, be they pedestrians, motorists, or other cyclists. We are not talking about those who blow through red lights and stop signs without a thought or look. A good many of us do follow the rules. Please allow us the respect we deserve, and let law enforcement deal with the rest appropriately.

Note as well that a lot more of us are cycling. Maybe it's the better weather, maybe it's the better economy, maybe it's $4 gas, maybe it's fewer and farther between buses, but a lot more people are on two wheels than there used to be. Really this is a good thing. They're doing you a favor! Every bike you see means one more parking spot available, one less car squeezing into a tunnel, and that much less demand for gasoline to drive your cost that much higher, sooner.

We cyclists do not want to cause you distress any more than we want to be injured. We would all be very happy to let you get by and go on your way, but it would help for you to understand what we are dealing with. The law says, and said already, that cyclists have to stay as far to the right as practicable, but this is subjective. The law also says, and said already, that we do have the right to use the road, and to take the full lane whenever necessary. You may not see the pothole, the pile of loose gravel, the tree branch, the dead raccoon, or the drain grate that can swallow our tires whole, but we can. We may also size up the upcoming curve and decide it is not safe for you even to try passing us, and make that choice for you. Getting in the left half of the lane is our prerogative, and necessary for our own safety. Whether you agree with it or not, you have to accept that, and respect our choices.

A second item you may not be aware of is doors. Many cyclists have been killed or injured because of plowing into a just-opened door of a parked car, or, in trying to avoid them, swerving into the path of a vehicle moving faster. Since parked cars are a hazard for bikes, we get left and take the lane, or should. In a narrow street with a lot of parked cars, as a motorist, you should anticipate this. If you are a cyclist, insist on it. Get left. Take the lane. They can have it when you're done with it, but right now, it's yours, and they are just going to have to wait. Motorists, there is no way to sugarcoat this. Accept it, get used to it, and stop complaining.

In slowing you down for all of five seconds, I appeal to your sense of fairness. The postal worker drives a little delivery truck, the garbage collector drives a big one. While making their rounds, you have to slow for a few seconds, and then get around them. You do not question the need for this. All we are asking is that you give us the same respect you give them.

One reason we do have so many cars is because this law did not already exist. We cyclists hear it all the time: More people would bicycle, if it were not so dangerous. It is dangerous, or is perceived to be, because of the absence of this law. I am 53, but have been riding on the road since I was 6. Your small child should be able to to ride on the road with a level of safety equal to that of an adult. This law seeks to eliminate that fear, at least so other adults can feel empowered to at least try using a bicycle from time to time.

Allow me to address some of the common opposition to the new rule.
  • Bicyclists do not pay for the roads, so should not be on them. Bicyclists are taxpayers, and taxes pay for the roads. At the local level -- boroughs, townships, cities and counties -- from paving to plowing to traffic lights, property taxes pay for most road maintenance. At the state and federal levels, there is a fuel tax that should pay for roads, but neither has been raised in years, it has never been indexed to inflation, and needs now far outstrip what those taxes bring in. You are not paying for the roads, either. Cars today also have better fuel economy than when these taxes were implemented, so we have more motorists using the roads, per fuel-tax dollar brought in. If motorists paid for the roads properly, we would likely be looking at a large increase in the gas tax. Taking some of the traffic off the roads lessens the need for taxes to be raised, to accommodate more cars, so each bike you see is actually saving you money.
  • Bicycles should be restricted to trails and parks. Allow me to make a comparison here. Should cars be restricted to using only superhighways? We all share that "last mile", so we have to get along.
  • Cyclists should have to be licensed and insured, and their vehicles registered. Anyplace this has been tried ends up costing government much more than any benefit obtained or savings gained. Also noteworthy is that the calls for this come from some of the same people who are arguing for smaller government with less interference in private matters.
What would help, however, is if all cyclists were educated in proper use of bicycles and roads, from childhood on up. What would also help is if all motorists were educated on proper use of cars and roads, from childhood on up. We as a country do neither. We do more to promote both bicycles and cars as toys, from toddlerhood on forward, and our driver licensing is the most lenient in the world. Yet we have created a world where we have become dependent on one toy to the exclusion of the other. All we are asking is to level the playing field, at least a little bit.

To reiterate: This is about people, not bicycles. People, and keeping them safe. That is far more important than a moment's inconvenience. Please, let's just get along.