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Pandemic prompts cycling surge -- and calls for new protections

Jenni Bergal, on

Published in News & Features

Bicyclists most commonly are killed by vehicles hitting them from behind, he said. Drivers could be trying to overtake them and misjudging how much space they have or just may not be paying attention.

Creating a standard distance of 3 feet or preferably more makes it clearer to drivers, he said. An even better change, he added, is requiring drivers to move into the adjacent travel lane if it is safe and allowing them to cross a double yellow line to bypass cyclists.

“Change lanes to pass is easier as a message, rather than having to judge the number of feet,” he said.

Safe passing laws also are helpful because they create a legal framework for civil lawsuits, McLeod said. Crashes involving cyclists are often considered a traffic offense, and typically result in drivers getting citations or points on their license rather than being criminally charged.

“I’ve heard from civil attorneys who are representing bicyclists who have been injured or killed. They say that kind of definition [in safe passing laws] is helpful in making sure that the bicyclist gets justice,” he said.

But McLeod and other bicycling advocates stress that while such laws are helpful, they’re not enough. To tackle the problem, officials need to invest more in infrastructure, such as bike lanes and wide paths for walkers and cyclists to share, they say.

“Our system right now is reactive to deaths and we don’t actually do much to build roadways that are safer for biking,” McLeod said.

This year, New Jersey and North Dakota enacted safe passing laws for bicyclists for the first time. Florida, Georgia, Nevada, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Virginia also beefed up laws already on the books, according to NCSL’s Shinkle.

North Dakota’s law requires vehicles passing a bicycle to maintain at least 3 feet of distance. It went into effect Aug. 1.


New Jersey’s law goes further. It requires drivers to move over one lane when passing a bicyclist if it is safe to do so, or allow 4 feet between the car and the bicyclist. If it’s not safe to do either, the driver must slow to 25 mph.

The bipartisan measure, which Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law last month, also applies to pedestrians who have to walk on the road when there is no sidewalk as well as electric scooter riders. Violators face a $100 fine. Those who cause bodily injury face a $500 fine and two motor vehicle points on their license.

The legislation was sparked by the January 2020 death of a 44-year-old man who was hit by a tractor-trailer while riding his three-wheel electric bicycle in Edison, New Jersey.

“This grabbed all of us in the community and it spurred a lot of conversation,” said Robert Karabinchak, a Democratic member of the New Jersey Assembly, in an interview with Stateline.

“Bicyclists and pedestrians should be protected on the road,” said Karabinchak, who co-sponsored the measure. “This legislation is trying to educate drivers and make sure they have a mindset of safety.”

Last year, 17 bicyclists and 179 pedestrians died on New Jersey roadways, according to New Jersey State Police Fatal Accident Investigation Unit data. That accounted for 34% of the state’s fatal crashes. So far this year, 13 bicyclists and 127 pedestrians have died.

“These numbers are too high and any loss of life is too much,” Karabinchak said. “We’re hoping that drivers become smarter and know that when they’re pulling up beside a bicyclist or jogger in a vehicle that weighs thousands of pounds they should pay attention and not be reckless.”

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