Drivers need to get up to speed

Rules of the road change and evolve — so should motorists

April 03, 2011|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

Driving is one of the most important things most of us do in our professional and personal lives, so why would we expect to learn it while we're in high school and then just stop?

Doctors, nurses and other medical caregivers are expected to continue education over the course of their careers. In some fields, such as tax accounting, professionals have to update their knowledge every year or be left hopelessly behind. Even reporters can't help but pick up a few scraps of new information as we go about our work, even though we usually get to weasel out of tests.

So when we get on the road, with other people's lives in our hands, shouldn't we have the expectation of lifelong learning?

Generally, we don't. A lot of my email from drivers — particularly when it comes to interactions with bicyclists — seems to reflect the state of thinking back in the 1950s through the 1980s. The last time some people really thought about driving, it seems, is when they got their licenses.

Yet the evidence is everywhere that there are motorists who haven't kept up — if they ever really learned how to drive.

Think of how much has changed in recent decades. The state of the law, as well as public opinion, has changed dramatically when it comes to drunken driving — an offense that was once considered more comic than reprehensible. Cellphones and texting devices are now ubiquitous in the front seats of motorists who never heard the term "distracted driving" back in driver's ed. Roundabouts are no longer a European thing.

And bicyclists aren't just school kids pedaling in the safety of a leafy subdivision. They're everywhere, and their numbers are growing.

Both before and after last week's column about how motorists should approach bike lanes, comments have come in suggesting that Baltimore city government has abdicated a responsibility to inform drivers about how to obey the law.

Sorry. Not the case. Regulating drivers and seeing to it that they know the rules are state responsibilities under Maryland law. With the state of the city's budget, it's unrealistic to expect the city to carry water for the state. It can barely carry its own.

On the state level, the agency responsible for driver education is the Motor Vehicle Administration, though the State Highway Administration and Maryland State Police play secondary roles in getting the word out about safe driving practices.

None of these agencies is exactly swimming in money to re-educate drivers. Nor is it clear that many drivers want continuing education. Any of us could pay to take a refresher course from a private instructor. But how many of us have done so? (My hand is down, too.) Few of us are begging our lawmakers to require midlife requalification of drivers.

So every once in a while, if it seems there's a need, this column will pass along some tips for those who want to know more about one of the riskiest things most of us do. It's more a stopgap than a solution, but maybe it'll help a little.

Our guest instructor for this column is Barry Childress of the bicyclists' group Baltimore Spokes. Childress is an experienced operator of both two-wheel and four-wheel vehicles. He's going to address a question, posed by some readers, about whether bicyclists are required to stay in bike lanes to the right of the main travel lanes. And to do so, he's going straight to Maryland's traffic code:

§ 21-1205. Riding on roadways or on highway.

(a) Riding to right side of roadway: Each person operating a bicycle or a motor scooter at a speed less than the speed of traffic at the time and place and under the conditions then existing on a roadway shall ride as near to the right side of the roadway as practicable and safe, except when:

(1) Making or attempting to make a left turn;

(2) Operating on a one-way street;

(3) Passing a stopped or slower moving vehicle;

(4) Avoiding pedestrians or road hazards;

(5) The right lane is a right turn only lane; or

(6) Operating in a lane that is too narrow for a bicycle or motor scooter and another vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane.

That's a pretty good list of exceptions to what many think is a rigid law. If you're sitting on a bicycle seat, all these exceptions make a lot of sense. From the front seat of a car, they might not be so obvious. Certainly my mailbag shows there are plenty of drivers out there who view a bicyclist who has left the bike lane as a dangerous fugitive.

But here's the actual text of the rule:

§ 21-1205.(a) ... Each person operating a bicycle ... on a roadway shall ride as near to the right side of the roadway as practicable and safe.

Practicable and safe. That gives the bicyclist a lot of room for judgment. And it calls for flexibility from drivers.

"Both bicyclists and motorists need to understand there are times when a bicyclist needs to operate exactly like motor vehicle, especially where right turns are authorized. Bicyclists staying to the right does not always work to the advantage of everyone," Childress said.

Echoing last week's column, he added this: "By far the major error on the motorist side is the thinking that they can pass and then turn directly in front of a bicyclist. This goes double for turning into driveways."

That's enough for now. Class dismissed. There will be no pop quiz.

But if you can think of any brilliant ways to help drivers — and bicyclists, for that matter — to stay current on the evolving rules of the road without insulting them, drop me a line. There ain't none of us what couldn't stand learning something new.

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