Protect those pesky cyclists? Yes.



Bicyclists are obnoxious.

On any sunny spring day, you'll find them infesting the country roads surrounding Baltimore looking freakishly fit in their Spandex outfits and dweeby helmets. You just know they're a bunch of smug, greener-than-thou elitists whose greatest joy - apart from forcing motorists to crawl along at 10 mph while they drift toward the middle of the road - is to lecture you about your carbon footprint.

So I can sympathize with those members of an Annapolis House subcommittee who would really prefer to kill Del. Jon S. Cardin's bill to establish a 3-foot buffer zone for bicyclists when cars are passing them. It would be galling to hand a victory to those irksome people - half of whom don't seem to think the rules of the road apply to them. Why reward their bad behavior?

Because it's a good bill. And it's needed.

House Bill 496, along with the companion Senate measure that received preliminary approval last week, would write into Maryland law an evolving national standard that has been adopted in at least 20 states. It won't cost the state money. The State Highway Administration and AAA have endorsed it. Nobody testified against it when it came up for a hearing. It could save a life or two.

Nevertheless, Cardin told me Friday, the bill's prospects are hanging by a thread in the House subcommittee. The Baltimore County Democrat said it isn't being lobbied to death, but it has touched a nerve of resentment among some legislators.

They've seen the way some bicyclists behave. They've seen them scoot through red lights where vehicles are stopped. They see them flagrantly going the wrong way on one-way streets. They see them riding side by side and taking up a whole lane of a two-lane road, oblivious to the vehicle traffic stacking up behind them. Why would anyone possibly want to pass a law on behalf of those people?

Because it's the right thing to do.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of who does what to whom on the roads, the mismatch in weight and vulnerability between motor vehicles and bicycles is extreme. And the law protects the vulnerable, even when the vulnerable get on our nerves.

And, hard as it is to accept, there are many law-abiding, courteous bicyclists who would never dream of lecturing you about your vehicular decisions. These bicyclists tell me the law is urgently needed.

Take Adam Berg, a 35-year-old recycling business owner from Stevenson, who said he does his best to stay close to the white line on the right of the road. But that doesn't stop some drivers from passing him as closely as possible - sometimes deliberately.

"They still buzz you. It happens all the time," he said.

Berg said that the wind forces generated when a vehicle - particularly a truck - passes too closely alternately push a bicycle away and then pull it back toward the vehicle. He said that he hasn't been blown over but that he's come close to being dragged into the side of a passing truck.

One concern that always comes up in writing traffic laws is how they will be enforced. It's definitely an issue with the subcommittee chair, Del. James E. Malone of Baltimore County. And rightly so.

It's true there's no way to measure exactly the distance between every bicycle and every passing car, but this law would certainly be just as enforceable as the current statute on tailgating. We leave such judgment calls to police officers. Why not with vehicles passing bicycles? You're not going to see many officers writing tickets for vehicles passing 2 feet, 11 inches from bicycles. But many judges would give weight to an officer's estimate that a vehicle passed within a foot of a bicyclist.

And sadly, there are cases where there is actual contact - often with a protruding side-view mirror. It won't hurt the car much, but the damage to the bicyclist can be serious. For the motorist in such a case, a ticket for violating the buffer zone would be both deserved and provable.

Even if there aren't a ton of convictions for buffer-zone offenses, many bicyclists believe there is value in simply making it The Law.

"It helps to educate," said Paul DeSantis, a 35-year-old bicyclist from Freeland in northern Baltimore County. Once the law is on the books, he said, the rule will find its way into driver's ed classes. Maybe even the driver's license exam. There's value in that.

If subcommittee members are still having trouble getting their heads around the notion of voting for a pro-bicyclist bill, it might help to put a face on a person it might protect.

Delegates, imagine your best friend has a young adult son or daughter who is enjoying a glorious day pedaling through the scenic valleys outside Baltimore. That bicyclist is obeying the law, staying as far right as possible. But the driver coming up from behind at 50 mph is in a hurry, feeling stressed and in a bad mood.

Consider the worst - and how you'd explain a "No" vote to your friend.

Besides Malone, the bill's fate lies in the hands of Dels. Saqib Ali, Alfred C. Carr Jr., Barbara Frush, Cheryl Glenn, Anne Healey, H. Wayne Norman, Andrew Serafini, Dana M. Stein and Paul Stull. If someone you love is one of those obnoxious bicyclists, you might want to let them know how you feel.

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