Given new protection, bicyclists should protect selves

Requiring bike helmets is matter of fairness and safety

June 14, 2010|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

The state of Maryland gave bicyclists an overdue gift in this year's legislative session: a new law requiring drivers to leave a 3-foot buffer when passing people on bicycles.

It's a great idea, one that has worked well in other states. And bicyclists deserve that protection.

But now it's time they gave back — by wearing helmets.

It doesn't take a Nobel laureate to discern that it's risky business to take one's unprotected skull out on the road with vehicles 50 times as heavy as a bicycle. It's especially dangerous in city traffic, where trouble can lurch out from around any corner at speeds that would be trivial to another car but fatal to flesh and bone on a flimsy bike frame.

The problem does not seem prevalent on state highways outside the city, where you tend to spy the most serious and conscientious bicyclists. But not a day goes by when you can't see bicyclists careening around downtown and on major city arteries with their heads bare and their hair flapping in the breeze.

It's not fair. To the motorists who could inadvertently hit them and be tormented by the consequences. To the people in cars who could be stuck when a street is closed for investigation of a bicycle fatality. To the taxpayers who could foot the bills for bicyclists' traumatic brain injuries. To their friends, their families and the smarter selves they ought to live to be.

This state has already told motorcyclists they must don approved headgear. As well it should. People who use public highways can legitimately be held to a public standard of safe behavior. You want to claim a right of privacy for how you drive or bike? Use a private road and see how far it gets you. You want safe roads? Act safely yourself.

It makes no sense to hold motorcyclists to a strict standard and give bicyclists a pass on unsafe practices. At the same time, it's legitimate to recognize the key differences: Bicycles do not reach the speeds of motorcycles, and they are used on trails and to get around within low-traffic residential neighborhoods..

Here's a suggestion: Require headgear for bicyclists on all state highways. And give Baltimore, the counties and municipalities free rein to adopt bicycle helmet laws appropriate to local conditions.

In Baltimore, that might mean requiring bicyclists to wear helmets if they enter the central business district or venture out on busy roads such as Northern Parkway, York Road and Harford Road. Strictly local traffic on side streets could be exempted — though in fact everyone who takes a bicycle out on a road or a trail ought to wear headgear.

Would such a law raise difficulties in enforcement? Certainly. That will be true of any bicycling infraction as long as using one doesn't require a license.

Now that raises an entirely different issue — but one that would be well worth a hearty debate. If we as a society make a commitment to protecting bicyclists and investing in better bike facilities, why shouldn't we require them to carry a license? A driver's license could do double-duty for those who have one, but shouldn't there be a mechanism to hold bicyclists who violate traffic laws just as accountable as motorists are?

Should "stop" mean "yield"?

A recent round of pedaling around the city (albeit on a hybrid bike with a backup motor) left me more sympathetic with bicyclists on one count but less on another.

A lot of motorists complain that bicyclists don't follow the same rules they do. They point fingers at two-wheelers for blowing through stoplights and failing to come to a full stop at stop signs.

Meanwhile, bicyclists complained about being "doored" by motorists who suddenly fling their car doors open in the path of a bike.

The complaint about bicyclists overlooks the fundamental differences between the use of a pedal-powered vehicle and one with a powerful engine. When a bicyclist comes to a full stop, all the hard-earned momentum built up by muscle power is lost. Coming off a stop requires extra exertion, especially on an uphill grade. People who ride bicycles might want some exercise, but don't necessarily want the agony of constant stops and starts.

That doesn't excuse the bicyclist who breezes through a stoplight without looking. Those folks, and there are far too many of them, should be ticketed just as surely as a driver would under the same circumstances.

But bicycles are unlikely to do the kind of damage to others that motor vehicles can do, They also have a much smaller stopping distance and can react to crossing traffic without needing to slow well in advance.

My conclusion was that stop signs, and in many cases stoplights, should be considered under law to mean "yield" for bicyclists. In pedaling through Highlandtown, where the stop signs came almost every block and traffic was light, it quickly became clear that was the only solution that made sense.

My sympathies for those who had been "doored" were diminished by the experience. It was clear to me that if a bicyclist is operating close enough to a line of parked cars that a door being opened would be a hazard, prudence would dictate slowing down and scanning those cars for signs of emerging occupants. Yes, people should be careful when they open their doors in traffic, but a bicyclist who bets life and limb on such consideration is a two-wheeled fool.

A bicyclist who wants to go faster than such vigilance allows should simply take the adjoining lane, even if motorists are displeased, and yield to faster traffic when it's safe.

Now is there anyone who still isn't offended?

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