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Bicycle Blunders and Smarter Solutions

by Fred Oswald, Bicycling Safety Instructor


10.  Smarter Solutions -- Traffic Law Reform and Enlightening Public Officials


Reforming Traffic Laws

Since spring 2002, a small committee has been working on improvements to bicycle traffic laws.  The committee started by studying the current Uniform Vehicle Code to identify deficiencies from the standpoint of safe, efficient and equitable use of roadways for cycling.  The committee developed a set of "Model Laws" starting with portions of the UVC.  This model is used as the standard for rating the existing UVC and traffic laws of the various states.

At various times, state cycling organizations propose reforms for their state laws.  Reforms proposed by the Ohio Bicycle Federation passed the Ohio General Assembly and signed into law in 2006.  The reforms raised Ohio's rating from "D" to "B".

Occasionally, state cycling organizations must mobilize to defeat proposed laws that would harm cyclists' interests.  Examples include an attempt to mandate wrong-way riding in Montana (2001) or an exorbitant bicycle license fee proposed in Vermont (2003).  Unfortunately, there is no national support for bike law reform efforts, except for the informal committee mentioned above.

At the local level, this author evaluated bicycle ordinances for 75 communities in NE Ohio assigning a rating (A-F scale) to each.  Initially, about half of the communities mandated one or more dangerous practices, thus earning ratings of D or F.  Since the project started some communities have improved their ordinances.  As of late 2009, 21 communities earn an A or A- rating.  But there are still a few that get an F-.

The first A rating was a result of the city of Brook Park, Ohio, which completely revised their ordinances (originally rated F), and instead adopting Model Municipal Ordinances.  Reforms started after a city resident sent a copy of the article to all members of council.  The councilman who sponsored the reform legislation was quoted in the newspaper saying "I don't want to see Brook Park get an F in anything."  The Ohio Bicycle Federation acknowledged the city's reforms by presenting a "Good Cycling Laws" award (photo at right).

Characteristics of the Ideal Law: [2]



Enlightening Public Officials

Since public officials come from our society, they are taught the same information, right or wrong, as other citizens.  Overcoming popular myths about bicycle operation will help educate lawmakers, police, judges and engineers.  There is a need to work specifically to reach these officials.

Poor traffic laws confuse public officials and law enforcement officers.  Laws requiring riding as near as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway are very often misinterpreted to mean as close as possible by those who do not understand correct lane position.  Reforming traffic laws, including this "far right rule", will help officials to avoid such mistakes.

Several states (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Idaho and Arizona and others) have issued a state Bicycle Drivers Manual, based on the booklet Bicycling Street Smarts.  Such a manual, if issued by a state government agency, establishes the best practices depicted in the booklet as regulations that define how to comply with traffic laws.  The manual instructs:  On a road with two or more narrow lanes in your direction -- like many city streets -- you should ride in the middle of the right lane at all times.  This establishes the center of the lane to be as near as practicable, helping law officers to understand the law.

Some states have similar instructions in the booklet given to applicants for a motor vehicle operator license.  The Texas Drivers License Handbook has a particularly good section that tells motorists to watch for typical cyclists' mistakes and warns cyclists about motorist mistakes. Unfortunately, it is spoiled by misquoting the Texas "far right rule" to say "as far right in the lane as possible."

State transportation officials can help by adding appropriate questions on state motor vehicle driver license exams.  Such questions will lead to better coverage in driver training classes.

Earlier (in Part 8) we mentioned the Ohio Cyclist Friendly Community Program Toolkit.  A very important feature of the program is that it strongly encourages government officials to understand the best cycling practices.


Training Police

Cyclists need well-informed police to protect their safety and their rights under the law.  Earlier in this series, we described problems due to poorly-trained police; including failing to enforce laws against the serious violations that cause collisions, occasional harassment of cyclists for what should be legal operation on the road and passing along misinformation in "safety tips", especially to children.

There are some good bike training programs for police.  Training for bicycle police is given by the International Police Mountain Bike Assoc.  Police may also be able to arrange a seminar from a local certified Cycling Savvy instructor.

Bicycle police can perform a very valuable educational service simply by being seen riding correctly on the roadway.


Government Help

Not all actions by government are harmful.  The basic "rules of the road" provide for orderly and efficient traffic flow that is extremely beneficial to cyclists.  Because bicycles predate motor vehicles, the right for bicycle operation on the roads is well established in law.

We have a few good examples of government officials working with knowledgeable cyclists.  A few officials are enlightened themselves.  We earlier mentioned the booklet Bicycling Street Smarts included in the bicycle driver manual in several states.  Some local authorities produce useful materials as well [4].  The Ohio Legislature and governor worked with the Ohio Bicycle Federation to pass significant reforms in 2006.


Legal Representation for Cyclists

Whenever a cyclist needs legal help, whether to fight an unjust ticket, or to seek compensation from a collision caused by someone's negligence, the cyclist needs competent legal representation.  This means an attorney and a good expert witness who understand cycling.

Unfortunately, cyclists may not get equal rights under the law.  Often legal counsel is unaware of how common attitudes and prejudices conflict with principles of engineering, safety and law.  Sometimes this is because defendants try to economize on legal expense.  You can learn from accounts of past cases in Alan Wachtel's essay, "Bicycles and the Law:  The Case of California'.

Some lawyers interested in cycling cases have their own web pages.  You may be interested in the following.


Footnotes

[1] Alan Forkosh photo.

[2] From Quality of Laws Institute, which says:  The problem with the rule of law is that it is wholly dependent upon the quality of laws.  That is, if the laws of a government are mediocre or ineffective, i.e., of low quality, then the government that enforces those laws must also be mediocre or ineffective.

[3] Pima County, AZ "Share the Road" booklet

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© Copyright 2004-2017 Fred Oswald.  May be copied with attribution.
Some materials may have been reproduced under fair use guidelines or with permission of the original author.
The author is a Professional Engineer in Ohio and a certified bicycling safety instructor.
Minor update Apr. 2017