Marcus Griffith at Bike Portland wrote a piece comparing the recently-proposed Washington bill mandating a safe passing distance to laws on the books in Oregon. The bill, being referred to as the “Mutual Responsibility Bill,” will attempt to mandate a minimum of three feet in passing distance for vehicles traveling slower than 35 mph, and five feet for those traveling faster. Bike Portland points out that this is much more specific and far fewer exceptions than Oregon’s law (so far):
Although the Oregon code defines ‘safe distance’ as a distance “sufficient to prevent contact with the person operating the bicycle if the person were to fall into the driver’s lane of traffic,” it exempts a majority of day-to-day passing scenarios.
In contrast to the very concept of safe passing, the Oregon code allows for a driver going 20, 30 and even 35 mph to pass within inches of someone riding a bicycle. It also keeps it legal for semi-trucks, with large and dangerous side mirrors, to whizz by at any rate of speed, so long as the person on the bike is in a marked bike lane.
The most potentially controversial aspects of the new bill, from what I can tell, concern the parts pertaining to bicycle behavior. Some cyclists (myself included, to some extent) have expressed concern about parts mandating that cyclists ride in bike lanes, shoulders or as far to the right of the road as “judged reasonably safe by the bicyclist.” My concern is that people who are not used to riding bikes do not often understand what is safe and what is not for cyclists, and this could perhaps lead to unpleasantness.
For example, I often take the general traffic lane when I feel the bike lane puts me too close to parked cars. Many drivers may not understand that I am acting out of self-preservation, not a desire to make them angry. With a new law apparently mandating that I ride in the bike lane, I wonder if driver anger in these situations may increase as they witness yet another apparent scofflaw. Then again, how many drivers even know that it is not already the law for cyclists to ride in bike lanes? Seattle (and many other WA cities) has too many poorly-constructed and maintained bike facilities for this sort of law to function. However, the law clearly leaves discretion up to the bicyclist, so concern may simply be unnecessary.
UPDATE: Seattle Likes Bikes is NOT a fan of the new law. See the critique here. Looks like I have to dive into some legalese for a while now (bummer). Some of SLB’s conclusions are hopefully misreads of the bill (the passing on right thing is talking about one-way streets, right?). Either way, cyclist opinion of this bill is not off to a good start. Will follow-up.
Mike Seely, the new editor-in-chief of Seattle Weekly, broke in his spot over at the Daily Weekly by writing that the proposed bill is too light on bikers, who he somehow sees as his biggest threat as a pedestrian. He takes issue with language that, while mandating bicyclists yield to pedestrians on sidewalks and trails, states that “the pedestrian is not relieved of the obligation to exercise due care.” He makes a good point (before going off on his dislike for cyclists, the “smuggest subset of Seattle citizenry”). He states that sidewalks are the domain of pedestrians. I agree that they should be. This is a big reason why we need better bicycle facilities. I don’t like the idea of cyclists being forced off roads and onto sidewalks. That space should be for safe travel by foot. However, there are certain parts of the city in which many people simply do not feel safe on the street. Until that is fixed, some sidewalk mingling will be unfortunately necessary. The wording in the law will help pedestrians make their case in the event of an incident involving someone on a bicycle. It now clearly states that bicyclists should yield.
Seely then goes into unfortunate territory, voicing his anger about his perception of cyclists’ smugness and how that in someway justifies throwing sticks in their spokes (cue video from Big Daddy). He also makes the claim that “it’s not motorists who pose the greatest threat to my safety–it’s fucking bikers.” Judging by the fact that deaths-by-bicycle almost never happen, while deaths by car happen far too often and in all reaches of the city, his claim is clearly not true.
I am more receptive to anger from pedestrians than from drivers, since a pedestrian can’t lose it and hit me with two tons of steel. I also feel that people who walk and people who bike both have much to gain by uniting. After all, dominance of motor vehicle travel is the biggest threat to safety and ease for both modes. I hope Mike was just in a bad mood when he wrote the piece and that this is not his general outlook on all things cycling. We don’t really need yet another area publication that despises all things two-wheeled.
Seely worked for many years at the Riverfront Times in St. Louis, my hometown (which is something of an angry driver mecca). I believe he worked with my sister there for a while (she sold ads). I was excited to hear it when he became Editor-In-Chief of the Weekly recently. There seem to be quite a few St. Louis folx writing in Seattle these days. So I was quite bummed to read this piece. Maybe it was just a bad day…