New law places more responsibility for cyclists’ safety on motorists

Cyclists race up Belfast's Main Street as part of the annual Maine Bike Rally in July 2005.
Walter Griffin | BDN
Cyclists race up Belfast's Main Street as part of the annual Maine Bike Rally in July 2005. Buy Photo
By Mario Moretto, BDN Staff
Posted June 24, 2013, at 7:01 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A new law aimed at increasing the safety of bicyclists in Maine’s roadways is scoring an enthusiastic thumbs-up from cyclists in the state’s biggest city.

The bill, LD 1460, introduced by the Bicycle Coalition of Maine and passed into law June 13 without the governor’s signature, adds teeth to the state’s 6-year-old “3 feet” rule and gives cyclists the right to determine for themselves the safest place to travel within a roadway.

It also changes the state definition of “traffic” to include cyclists and rollerbladers and prohibits motor vehicles from making right turns near cyclists in a way that would interfere with the cyclist’s travel. Advocates say that action, dubbed a “right hook,” is one of the most common causes of bicycle-motor vehicle accidents.

The law will take effect sometime in September, 90 days after the Legislature adjourns.

Jason Unterreiner, a 30-year-old Portland cyclist, said he was happy the law recognized his right to make the safest decision while riding his bike to and from Falmouth for work.

The previous law, requiring cyclists to ride as far to the right as possible, was “fundamentally unsafe,” he said.

“Oftentimes the safest place in the lane [will change], and quite often it’s toward the center of the lane, far away from where people will hit you with opening doors, far away from dirt and broken glass on the shoulder,” he said.

The Bicycle Coalition said passage of the law is an incremental step toward their ultimate goal of passing a “vulnerable user” law in Maine. Such laws exist in several other states and protect cyclists, pedestrians and motorcyclists by placing the responsibility for their safety on motor vehicle drivers.

“Our goal, with these improvements to the law and with future improvements, is to make it automatic,” said Nancy Grant, executive director for the Coalition. “When a bicyclist gets hit by a motorist, it should be a presumption of negligence on the part of the motorist. Vulnerable users, who aren’t encased in 5,000 pounds of steel, need to be traveled around carefully.”

Interactions between cyclists and motorists can be a tense and dangerous one, as shown in two recent news stories: the verbal altercation in Falmouth between a cyclist and a Portland TV show host who drove too closely and shouted a homophobic slur, and the death of a Trek Across Maine cyclist in Hanover in a collision with the back end of tractor-trailer.

Police said the cyclist in Hanover lost control of his bike while drinking from a water bottle as the tractor-trailer created a draft driving past him. The big rig was 3½-4 feet from the cyclist when it passed, witnesses told police. The driver will not face charges, according to police.

Maine law stipulates that motorists must give at least 3 feet of clearance when passing bicyclists. Under the new law, any accident involving a motor vehicle and a bicyclist is automatically considered evidence the driver violated the 3-feet law, though it is not the “presumption of negligence” the Bicycle Coalition had proposed in an earlier version of the bill. It sounds like jargon, but it’s a big difference in the courtroom.

Grant said she hoped the new law would help prevent accidents such as the one in Hanover.

“I was riding the trek,” she said. “That was incredibly tragic, and we want to do everything we can to prevent that from happening in the future.”

Christian Dyer, another Portland bicycle commuter, said he hoped adding more legal teeth to the 3-feet rule would make drivers obey the law.

“Motorists, on the whole, do not acknowledge the 3-feet rule,” he said. “They’re distracted, they’re on their cellphones. It scares the daylights out of me when I see someone coming through the intersection and they’re on their phone. I actually asked someone yesterday to get off their cellphone [while they were driving], because they’re endangering my life.”

Grant said that she recognized that cyclists aren’t perfect, and that not every car accident involving a bicycle is the driver’s fault. She also said many motorists are left with a bad taste in their mouths when cyclists cruise through a red light or turn without signaling.

“They ask, ‘How do you share the road with them?’” she said. “I agree it’s a challenge, and we’re working all the time to teach bicyclists how to ride their bikes safely and predictably.”

Maria Fuentes, executive director for the Maine Better Transportation Association, said letting cyclists choose for themselves where is the best place to ride may be “confusing” for some motorists, but said that enough education will help Mainers make it work.

“I think that would certainly be subject to interpretation; What’s one person’s safe spot might not be another’s,” she said. “It will be up to public safety people and the commuting community to make sure we educate people and raise awareness.”

“Most people who drive cars are conscientious, but there are always some who aren’t,” she added. “The same is true of people who ride bicycles.”

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/06/24/news/state/new-law-places-more-responsibility-for-cyclists-safety-on-motorists/ printed on August 1, 2014