Sharing the road

Our view: Proposed new penalties for motorists who injure or kill bicyclists are welcome, but they alone won't make our streets safer

March 28, 2011

In the springtime, bicyclists flood the streets, some hauling their bikes out of winter storage, other hardy souls simply changing their riding garb.

As the number of cyclists increases, so do the chances of crashes. In Maryland over the last five years, there was an average of 773 known bicycle crashes resulting in 644 injuries and eight fatalities each year. Forty percent of these police-reported bicycle crashes occur in the late afternoon and evening, between 4 and 8 p.m. Twenty-four percent happen in Baltimore City. These data come from the State Highway Administration.

When a car and a bicycle collide, the cyclist always suffers. One of the most dangerous collisions results from the so called "right hook" turn, in which a vehicle in front a cyclist makes a sudden right turn into the cyclist's path. In the past year, two incidents involving right hook turns in Baltimore resulted in the death of one cyclist and put another in a coma. John R. Yates was killed after he was crushed by a large truck making a right turn off Maryland Avenue onto Lafayette Avenue, and Nathan Krasnopoler, a John Hopkins student, has yet to wake up after colliding with a car that made a right turn in front of him on University Parkway last month. In both cases the cyclists were traveling in bike lanes.

Motivated by these crashes and by the fact that police failed to cite the driver of either vehicle, bike advocates are pushing for better laws and increased efforts to educate motorists about how to safely interact with cyclists.

Last week in Annapolis, a manslaughter bill that bike advocates say is designed to stop motorists involved in fatal bicycle crashes from getting off with a minor traffic court violation cleared the House of Delegates and was sent to the Senate. This legislation would give prosecutors another option for charging motorists who cause fatalities by driving in a criminally negligent manner while sober. The offense would still be considered a misdemeanor and would carry a maximum penalty of three years in prison and/or a fine no higher than $3,000.

This is a more sensible approach than the current options of a prosecutor, which consist of either sending the case to traffic court or charging a motorist with the difficult to prove felony manslaughter, subject to a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

While enacting a misdemeanor manslaughter law makes sense and follows the modern penal code used by many other states, it alone won't improve bike safety. The possibility that a negligent motorist might face a stiffer penalty than traffic court advances the cause of justice, but it is unlikely by itself to make drivers more cognizant of bicyclists, and that is what it will take to make our roads safer.

Education and publicity are the most effective tools we have. One idea, offered up by the cycling group Bike Maryland, is for the state motor vehicle administration to include a sheet in driver's license renewal forms that would spell out how to safely pass cyclists, reminding drivers to give cyclists at least three feet of clearance when passing (in accordance to a state law passed last year) and not to drive, park or stop in designated bike lanes. Putting more signage on roadways heavily used by cyclists is another smart suggestion. Training police officers on the rights of cyclists is yet another.

This is a two-way street, and cyclists have to do their part by following the rules of the road, including obeying traffic signals, giving clear hand signals, wearing bright clothing and, when riding after dark, and equipping their bikes with strong lights. Veteran cyclists advise fellow riders to assume that they are invisible to cars and to make plans to react to motorists' movements.

There are many cyclists and motorists on our roads who follow the rules — and many who flaunt them. The rule breakers ride at their peril. Guidelines for how the rest of the motorists and cyclists should share the road need to be clearly stated and regularly repeated. Both groups have the right to use the roads, and both need to be accountable for their actions.

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