A new law affecting the relationship between motorists and bicyclists passed last month without Gov. Paul LePage’s signature. The law, which derives from LD 1460, a bill introduced with bipartisan legislative support, makes three key changes.
First, the new law strengthens protections for cyclists and rollerbladers when they are at locations where motor vehicles turn right. The law still allows motorists to turn right after they determine it’s “reasonably safe” to do so. But it adds “without interfering with safe and legal operation of the bicycle or roller skis” of nearby users to the definition of “reasonably safe.”
The new language clarifies that turning motorists not only have a responsibility to avoid striking nearby bicyclists, they also cannot turn in a way that imperils riders by making them swerve or lose balance. The new language makes sense, especially in urban areas like greater Portland, where bicycling increasingly has become a way to get to and from work, not just a recreational endeavor. More bicycle commuters means less motor vehicle traffic, which benefits all involved but requires revised safety provisions to reflect the new dynamic at intersections.
The law’s second important change affirms the cyclist’s right to determine his or her safest path on roadways shared with motor vehicles. It still requires riders to keep as far to the right of a roadway “as practicable,” but it allows the cyclist to make that determination. When crumbling road shoulders, grit and salt buildup, parked vehicles and other hazards make riding to the far right a treacherous adventure, cyclists should be able to — within reason and based on clearly identified circumstances — alter their route slightly to the left with the expectation that motor vehicles will adapt as well.
The change gives cyclists in Maine more responsibility for their own safety, and safety — not a desire to stake ideological claims to equal roadway rights — should guide its implementation.
The third key change contained in the law is problematic in that any collision involving a motor vehicle and a bicyclist will automatically be considered evidence the driver violated Maine’s law that requires motorists to keep at least three feet between their vehicles and bicyclists when passing or traveling near them. This measure reflects the greater responsibility that motorists operating high-powered vehicles weighing several thousand pounds have when they encounter bicyclists who often only have helmets to protect them. However, it raises questions of fairness by assigning fault before an investigation is completed.
As Brian Scott of the Maine Department of Public Safety testified during a legislative committee hearing on LD 1460, “It is not necessary for police to have to assume who was negligent. That is what the crash investigation is supposed to determine.” The legal system will have to sort out conflicts between the law’s assumption of motorist fault and investigative reports that indicate otherwise.
The new law will not take effect until 90 days after the Legislature adjourns, which makes the peak cycling season of summer a time when drivers and riders can educate themselves about how it will affect the way they travel on Maine roads.
The waiting period before the law takes effect also provides time for healthy attitude adjustments all around. Motorists must accept that bicyclists have become more prevalent on Maine roads, so the people behind the wheels of motor vehicles need to adapt to cyclists’ presence, even if it means slowing down or waiting until they reach a safe stretch of road to pull into the other lane to pass riders. Bicyclists must ride predictably and defensively, acknowledging that they put themselves in grave peril if they fail to adhere to traffic laws.
Both parties must accept shared responsibility for road safety. Adversarial relations between motorists and bicyclists make Maine roads less safe for everyone.