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Opinion

Date: 04/15/11

Enhanced highway safety is real goal of bicycle bill

By Rep. Ralph Sarty

The bicycle bill I presented to the Legislature's Transportation Committee on April 12 provoked a negative reaction, primarily because it proposed a 2 percent surcharge on all sales of bicycles and accessories. However, the true intent of the bill, LD 1189, was less about the tax and more about calling attention to a law passed a couple of years ago. That law requires motor vehicles to give at least three feet of clearance to a bicyclist when passing one or more bikes. This has become a real highway safety issue.

The 2 percent surcharge would have gone towards covering the cost of wider road shoulders to promote safety for bicyclists. I understand why the idea met resistance. In the current environment, anything that looks like a new tax is ripe for rejection, and the Bicycle Coalition of Maine was adamantly opposed to the proposal.

That being said, let's examine the public safety issue.

In our state, the highway system is broken down into specific categories. There are minor "collector" roads, major collector roads, major arterials, and so on. The category assigned to a road is based on the volume of traffic.

Almost all roads that fall into the minor collector category are two-lane highways. They have a standard lane width of approximately 10 feet (from center line to shoulder). The three-foot clearance law does not pose a problem on major collector roads, which typically have paved shoulders from three to eight feet wide where cyclists can ride without actually being in the driving lane. On the minor collector roads, cyclists must ride within the same travel lane as cars and trucks.

Simple math shows the danger. If the bicycle is operated to the far right, as the law requires, let's assume that would be within 12 inches of the edge of the pavement. Now add the width of the bicyclist as an additional two feet. Then add the three feet of clearance required of a passing motor vehicle. That comes to six feet for the bicyclists, with only four feet remaining in the travel lane for a motor vehicle. Not even a Volkswagen beetle could make such a pass without crossing the centerline.

The law states that a vehicle passing a bicyclist "may" cross the centerline if it can be done safely. It should be noted that the Legislature later added roller skis to the three-foot clearance law.

Minor collector roads typically have a lot of curves and slopes, so legal passing areas, designated by a broken yellow line, can be scarce. Imagine someone driving a large commercial truck who comes around a curve at 45 miles per hour and discovers that bicyclists are in the road ahead with another vehicle approaching from the opposite direction. If tragedy is to be averted, the driver must "fast brake" or move into a portion of the oncoming lane, hoping that the approaching vehicle will swerve out of the way to avoid a collision.

In recent years, recreational bicycling has put thousands of new bikes on our highways, increasing the potential for accidents. Since 1984, the percentage of adults killed in bicycle/motor vehicle collisions has increased dramatically. In 2008, 86 percent of people killed in these crashes were adults, compared to 50 percent in 1984.

The current laws regarding bicycle use on public ways place little if any responsibility or liability on the bicyclists. Almost all the responsibility and liability is on motorists. As a former Maine State Trooper, I can see why motorists are rightfully concerned, especially when bikers back up traffic for miles because passing would be too dangerous.

It's not unusual for legislation to produce unintended consequences. I believe that is the case here. It is clear from their reaction that the bicycle community feels they should not be required to help contribute to highway improvements in order to create a safer biking environment. In my view, the current laws are inadequate, and the purpose of LD 1189 was to put the issue of highway safety on the table for consideration.

I'd like to see the Bicycle Coalition of Maine sit down with the Department of Public Safety to develop some commonsense safety measures. Perhaps we need a law stating that cyclists can't back up traffic for more than half a mile before pulling over and letting the traffic pass. It is time for the cyclists to take more responsibility for their sport, and this bill presents a good opportunity to begin the discussion. ###

State Rep. Ralph Sarty (R-Denmark) is a former Maine State Trooper