Laws give pedal power to the people

Like it or not, bicycles are here to stay – deal with it

May 10, 2010

Michael Harris of Catonsville is a serious bicycle enthusiast, 56 years old, who races with an Annapolis team and trains on a 33-mile course in the Baltimore suburbs. After reading last week's column about bicyclist-motorist interactions, he sent me this account of a recent ride on semi-rural Landing Road in Howard County:

As I was approaching the intersection of Ilchester Road a group of young men in a 4-door Jeep came within 6 inches of my handlebars. One jerk yelled in my ear an obscenity as the vehicle passed by. I could hear the laughs as they came to a halt at the intersection.

As I found out later when I caught up to (another) group of racers, a few of them were abused in the same fashion as the car blew by. Are our driving schools, these kids' parents not educating the young about sharing the road?

Judging by some of the reaction to last week's column, no. In fact, parents might be a big part of the problem. Many older motorists, it seems, have some quaint but somewhat delusional ideas about life, logic and the rules of the road. The young gentlemen in the Jeep could very well have cultivated their attitudes about bicyclists while sitting in the passenger seat of the family car.

Quite a few readers objected to the column's suggestion that motorists quit bellyaching and learn to give bicycles the 3-foot berth required by a newly passed bill. Several recounted anecdotes about occasions when they witnessed misconduct by bicyclists and attributed that behavior to everyone on a bike. Their conclusion: Bicyclists should be banished from roads that just happen to be near where these motorists live and drive.

Let us apply that reasoning to the circumstances encountered by Harris: Young men in a Jeep misbehaved on a country road. Therefore all Jeep drivers – no, make it all SUV drivers -- are hooligans. So let's ban all SUVs from country roads. Ridiculous? Absolutely. But many folks in cars seem perfectly willing to apply that tortured logic to bicyclists.

One such note came in from a gentleman in northern Baltimore County who preferred not to give his name.

Just this past weekend I headed out to get groceries and nearly had a collision with a truck attempting to avoid hitting a bicycle on our rural shoulder-less roads. It took place on a hill where visibility is limited. In order to give the bicycle that 3-foot berth, the truck suddenly swerved into my lane at the top of the hill. I could not see the truck until it was upon me. Very luckily I was driving slowly at the low limit and managed to swerve my car into the field to my right.

You can say, well, the truck should have slowed down until it was over that hill rather than swerve into the opposing lane at the top of a hill, but should-haves won't repair my car or body in the event of a collision which would not have been my fault in any sense of the word. The truck would not have needed to swerve into my lane if our road were bike-prohibited.

I understand that the writer is put out about being forced into a field, but why is the bicyclist to blame? Absolutely, the truck should have slowed down. No, the truck never "needed to swerve." Its driver could have simply slowed down until it was safe to pass.

But instead of blaming the truck's driver, the writer wants to take away from all bicyclists a right they have enjoyed since Maryland first began paving its roads. His gripe is that "the bicyclists I encounter are joy riding or exercising" while he is doing business and isn't there to "enjoy the scenery."

Here's the problem with that reasoning: This is America. We don't stop law-abiding people and ask why they're using a particular road. Whether a person is riding a bicycle or driving a car for recreation or to get to work is nobody's business but their own. A Baltimore bicyclist has just as much right to enjoy the scenery of a country road in Parkton as the driver who lives nearby.

And taking rights away from Americans is not an easy thing to do. You can build a new highway and keep bicyclists off, but telling them they can't ride on a familiar country road and there will be hell to pay. There isn't a politician in the state – Republican or Democrat – that would even try it. (Or maybe there is. We have some strange ones.)

So it seems the better solution might be to learn to get along and respect each other's right to use the roads.

That respect runs in both directions. There are certainly bicyclists out there whose behavior is an embarrassment to their conscientious peers. One reader in Clarksville sent a list of such bike infractions: from weaving through stopped traffic to failing to stop for a school bus with red lights flashing.

Each violation was indeed reprehensible, but where the reader lost me was his suggestion that his list shows that bicyclists generally "do not have any regard for the traffic laws" or his conclusion that they should be licensed in the same way as motorcyclists.

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