Bicyclists don't need 'three foot rule'

March 22, 2010

I wish to respond to the commentary published in the Sunday, March 21 eddition of The Sun entitled "Give Them Room" by Gregory T. Simmons. While Mr. Simmons hits all the in-vogue talking points with regard to bicycle transportation in and around Baltimore, unfortunately, these very same talking points help to perpetuate a host of fallacies. First, that riding a bike on a public roadway is inherently unsafe. It isn't. Second, that bike lanes advance the use of bicycles and safety of bicyclists. They don't. And third, that any form of feel good legislation aimed at errant motorists to supposedly benefit bicyclists will have its intended effect. Not a chance.

Mr. Simmons and those of his mindset propagate a form of mild psychosis best known as the bicyclist inferiority complex. People who suffer this psychosis think every motorist is out to run them off the road and that in order to ride a bicycle anywhere, a full set of private bicycle accommodations are necessary. The fact is that other than railways, bicycling is the safest form of land transportation in the U.S. In 2006, the National Safety Council reported that 928 people died while riding a bike. This compares with 45,316 motor vehicle deaths and 6,162 pedestrian deaths for the same year. Considering the fact that roughly half of the reported bicycle deaths each year are children who inadvertently ride out into traffic and another large percentage are wrong-way cyclists or non-illuminated nighttime riding deaths, the safety of an adult rider of a bicycle conforming to vehicular riding principles becomes even more pronounced. The cases of a motorist simply running into a bicyclist who is safely riding are so small as to be almost statistically insignificant. Yet those who clamor for more laws, mandatory helmet use and segregated bicycle facilities think nothing of driving their car -- a much more lethal activity.

This by no means translates into every bike ride in traffic being a walk in the park. It's not, nor should one expect it to be. A bicycle is a vehicle which requires operator knowledge and expertise like any other vehicle. Similar to a motorcycle or powered scooter, the fact that the rider is out in the open and the vehicle must be balanced demands a higher degree operator skill and vigilance than a four-wheeled vehicle. But that knowledge is readily available and the skills easily learned.

To Mr. Simmons request for legislation, there are already laws on the books that make it illegal to pass any other vehicle in a dangerous manner. There are a host of laws on the books that apply to all vehicles equally that prohibit a number of infractions with regard to overtaking another vehicle, yielding, right-of-way -- anything and everything associated with proper vehicle operation on a public road. The problem has nothing to do with how the laws are written; it's a lack of enforcement. There simply is no pro-active traffic law enforcement to speak of. When the government installs speed cameras and then mollifies the objectors by giving speeders 12 miles-per-hour grace above the posted limit, they effectively raised the speed limit of that roadway by 12 miles per hour. The average speed on the interstate system is routinely 20 miles per hour above the posted limit. While traveling by bike or by car, it would seem that the yellow line dividing opposing lanes of traffic simply does not exist for some motorists. Whether it's a same-direction motorist overtaking me when I am on my bike, or an opposite-direction motorist wishing to get around a the mail vehicle stopped on their side of the road, a percentage of motorists seem to have no qualms about crossing over the dividing line and forcing oncoming traffic to take evasive action instead of waiting for the lane to clear. I have even witnessed the local police doing this. So writing into law a three-foot passing margin will have no effect on how some people drive without enforcement. There are simply a percentage of motorists who don't follow the laws.

If the people of the state of Maryland via their elected representatives wish to make the roads safer for all users it's really quite simple: Enforce the existing traffic laws. If alternative forms of surface transportation other than the automobile are to be promoted, it's also not that difficult: Make it more exacting to gain and keep a motor vehicle operator's license and incorporate how to safely overtake a slow moving vehicle into the licensing education and testing process. Teach proper bicycle operation at a young age -- late middle school would be a good time. Maintain the road surfaces in good order for all users. To further encourage utilitarian bicycle use in urban areas where they are best suited, localities could reduce the speed limit to 30 miles per hour -- as fast as anyone need drive in an urban environment anyway.

Galen Wallace, Towson

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