Give cyclists some room

To make our roads safer for bicycles, Maryland should adopt the 'three-foot' rule

March 21, 2010|By Gregory T. Simmons

When gas prices hit the roof a couple years ago, more people started leaving their cars in the driveways and began pedaling their bicycles to work. When these new riders realized how unsafe it is to take a bicycle most places, however, many opted to pay the price of driving and parking, rather than risk their safety.

But riding a bicycle to get around doesn't need to be dangerous. There are easy legislative fixes that not only would make it safer for bicyclists and others who use the road but would make it easier for people on four wheels to share the road with those on two wheels.

Bike lanes are great. They are a visible marking of where a bike is supposed to go, and where a car isn't. But a number of simple legislative options that go further than road markings could set Maryland (and the rest of the country) on the path toward being a place where people who want to bicycle can do it when they want; where motorists are not in conflict with bicyclists; and where energy consumption is measured more in miles pedaled than in miles per gallon.

One of the simplest legal tools that Maryland has yet to adopt is the three-foot safe-passing distance law. One such law is under consideration in the Maryland General Assembly. Sponsored by Del. Jon Cardin, it is stalled in the Environmental Matters Committee, whose co-chair, Del. James Malone, opposed a nearly identical bill last year, according to news reports, for concerns over enforceability.

That concern, which killed last year's bill, overlooks the genius of this legal option, versions of which have been adopted by 14 states and the District of Columbia. No dedicated funding is needed to adopt this law. The law would tell drivers they must give three feet between themselves and a cyclist in most circumstances -- unless there's already a bike lane, or unless the cyclist isn't following certain state requirements.

One question that has arisen when other states adopted laws like this is: How do you know someone broke the three-foot rule? Are we going to have a cop sitting there with a ruler? Of course not. If a police officer sees a driver who gets too close to a biker, the officer can issue a citation. If the citation is contested, the officer would testify as he would on any other matter. If he believed the car passed within six inches, it would be weighed against testimony and other evidence supporting the driver's contention that he passed safely. A photo would help, but it wouldn't be necessary. It would be up to a district court judge to decide the facts.

Under H.B. 461, if a driver hits a biker, the only question would be: Does any fault for striking the rider fall on the driver's shoulders? If the answer is yes, then the driver is automatically in violation of the three-feet law. If there is an accident between a cyclist and a motorist, an officer would be able to issue a citation without being an eyewitness to the accident. This would amount to a misdemeanor penalty and a fine of up to $500, according to the official bill analysis.

It might sound like a heavy penalty, but part of the idea is to make drivers more aware of cyclists on the road. If you steer clear of a cyclist, you don't have to worry about the law. It also makes sense because cars can bump each other with relatively little damage, but the slightest bump to a biker can result in serious injury, even death.

A three-foot rule also is consistent with -- and would strengthen -- proposals to make things like cell phone texting while driving a violation. Why? Because if a cyclist is struck by someone who was distracted when driving but can't prove that the motorist was texting, the driver is still liable for driving badly, regardless of the cause. Delegate Malone is the sponsor of one of the bills in the legislature this year that would ban texting while driving.

This three-foot bill also would protect Maryland's less-affluent residents who cannot afford a vehicle and whose next-best option is a human-powered one. Not only bicyclists but also Maryland motorists should stand behind this rule. The three-foot rule and others aimed at road safety for cyclists means more road safety for riders and motorists and fewer conflicts between motorists and bikers. It might even result in fewer cars on the road. That's something everyone -- pedestrian, cyclist and motorist -- should be able to get behind.

Gregory T. Simmons is president of the University of Maryland School of Law Cycling Club, a second-year law student and a longtime state resident. His e-mail is

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