Bills would create 5-foot buffer for bicyclists

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Bicyclists will have more space on the road thanks to new law in Michigan. Image: Richard Masoner, Flickr

By Isaac Constans

Capital News Service

Michigan roads could become slightly safer for bicyclists in the upcoming year.

Bills in the House and Senate would require drivers to give cyclists more breathing room and set specific standards for bicycle safety instruction in driver’s education courses.

Under one provision, cars would be required to give cyclists a 5-foot cushion when passing — a standard already enforced in many states and some Michigan localities. The second bill would require that driver’s education courses dedicate an hour to learning how to share the road with “vulnerable roadway users.”

Bicycling safety has been especially salient since a pickup truck plowed into a group of cyclists outside of Kalamazoo last June, killing five and seriously injuring four. The incident motivated Sen. Margaret O’Brien, R-Portage, to introduce the bills, which are cosponsored by Sen. David Knezek, D-Dearborn Heights.

Although the new legislation would not have saved the Kalamazoo cyclists, it would help prevent future crashes, according to O’Brien.

“More and more, it seems, going for a bike ride is turning into senseless tragedies,” O’Brien said. “We need to share the roads, and we are working to do more to protect vulnerable users sharing the roadways.”

In 2015, motorists killed 33 bicyclists compared to 21 deaths in 2014, according to the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning. Statistics for 2016 have not been finalized.

By law, drivers are required to keep a “safe distance” when passing cyclists and other slow-moving vehicles. The ambiguity in language presents constant problems for the League of Michigan Bicyclists, as drivers can perceive a safe distance to be what cyclists would consider extremely precarious.

“Five feet is easier to visualize,” said Aneta Kiersnowski, the development and communications director for the League of Michigan Bicyclists, based in Lansing. “For most motorists, what’s 3 feet versus 1 foot? It’s hard to gauge when you’re behind the wheel. Five feet is significant enough so that motorists can easily picture it as they’re driving down the roadway. And it’s a nationally recognized distance of safeness.”

As she rides thousands of miles a year, Darcie Pickren of Traverse City might seem a natural proponent of a new five-foot passing proposal. Yet, she goes the other way.

The president of the Cherry Capital Cycling Club, Pickren said the bills overreach. While she has had her fair share of close calls, she doesn’t believe a five-foot law would reduce the risk of accidents.

“People are very mindful of cyclists and riders,” Pickren said. “The problem comes when the cyclists are the one breaking the law. And I do not believe we can legislate human behavior. If someone is driving drunk and they hit someone on a bicycle, it doesn’t matter what the law says — whether it’s 3-foot, 5-foot or 10-foot.”

In Traverse City, many winding and narrow roads could make the new law dangerous in its own right, Pickren said. Curling around a bend, drivers would have to disregard their own safety if they were to leave 5 feet on their right-hand side.

While not speaking for all Cherry Capital Cycling Club members, Pickren said she believes rules of bikes on the road should be locally decided.

Many cities have already taken up the call to enact stricter passing laws. Among others, Grand Rapids, Traverse City, Kalamazoo, Detroit and Marquette have drawn out bicycle lanes and local ordinances designed to protect riders.

“If you can move some drivers out of their car and onto an alternative form of transportation, whether that’s bus transit or cycling, it makes the roadway function better from a congestion perspective,” said Josh DeBruyn, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the state Department of Transportation.

DeBruyn noted that cyclists also visit local businesses more frequently, and accessible biking options provide health benefits to residents. Yet, many communities are still relatively isolated from road bicyclists.

“Certainly the Secretary of State driver’s education program does provide some guidance about sharing the road and that there are cyclists on the road,” DeBruyn said. “The driver’s education curriculum has changed slightly over the last few years, so I think the younger generation is probably getting a little bit more guidance than say somebody who took it 50 or 25 years ago.

“Certainly, there could be more done to educate drivers of the rules of the road, but that’s a large undertaking.”

Bicycle education and safety bills were first introduced last year and passed by wide margins in the Senate, only to be discarded without a House vote at the end of term. Even if both bills were to succeed this time, however, many cycling advocates would seek an expansion of rights down the road.

For O’Brien, the next step will be legislation on distracted and impaired driving. Meanwhile, the League of Michigan Bicyclists will encourage harsher penalties for drivers who injure or kill a cyclist. The group unofficially recorded at least 21 cyclist fatalities last year.

“Most motorists, they of course want to keep everyone safe when they’re behind the wheel,” Kiersnowski said. “But because the law is so vague, it is hard for them, unless they’re cyclists themselves, to put themselves in the shoes of the cyclists on the roadway.

“Leaving it up to the individual driver, even though they may have the best of intentions, could lead to a dangerous situation for bicyclists.”

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