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Pandemic prompts cycling surge -- and calls for new protections

Jenni Bergal, Stateline.org on

Published in News & Features

Early this month, Lorna Rae Moss, a 69-year-old woman who loved to compete in triathlons, was killed when her bicycle was struck from behind by a minivan on a western Iowa road. The driver allegedly was drunk.

Moss, who taught water fitness classes and often rode her bike, left behind her husband of 47 years, three children and two grandchildren.

The crash was not unique. COVID-19 has sparked a surge in cycling, as Americans have sought alternatives to crowded gyms, buses and trains. There also has been an uptick in distracted drivers and speeding over the past 18 months.

That’s raised the risks for cyclists on the road and led some states to enact new laws that require space between vehicles and cyclists or other passing requirements for drivers.

“It’s really one of the No. 1 things we hear from people who have biked in the past and decided to stop. They’ve seen so many drivers texting or the vehicles have gotten so large that they feel it’s just unsafe,” said Ken McLeod, policy director for the League of American Bicyclists, a cycling advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. “People are really worried.”

This year, at least eight states approved safe passing laws to help protect bicyclists, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Some beefed up their current laws; others created new ones.

The measures typically seek to ensure that when passing bicycles, motorists allow adequate space to avoid sideswiping cyclists, hitting them from behind or causing them to overcorrect to avoid a vehicle.

“This is on people’s minds. There have been a steady march of states enacting new safe passing laws,” said Doug Shinkle, NCSL’s transportation program director. “This is getting significant attention.”

Forty-four states and the District of Columbia now have safe passing laws, more than double the number that had them a decade ago. Most require motorists to leave at least 3 feet when passing a bicyclist, according to NCSL. Some also allow drivers to cross a double yellow line to give cyclists space or require motor vehicles to change lanes if there is more than one lane in the same direction.

But eight of those states have more general laws that say that motorists must pass at a “safe distance.”

Alaska, Idaho, Iowa, Indiana, New Mexico and Texas are the only states without laws that specifically address passing a bicyclist, according to NCSL.

Bicycling advocates argue every state should have one.

“The biking community is very supportive of these laws,” McLeod said. “Even if there’s not going to be a lot of proactive enforcement, it educates drivers and provides a sense of justice for victims and helps in civil lawsuits.”

Safe passing laws are similar to “move over” statutes that every state has adopted. They require drivers to slow down or switch lanes when they pass emergency vehicles, and in many states the laws also cover tow trucks and transportation maintenance vehicles.

Bicyclist fatalities have been rising in the past decade, as have those involving pedestrians. Experts blame aggressive drivers, more speeding and an increase in distracted driving, largely caused by cellphone use. About eight people in the United States are killed every day in crashes that involve a distracted driver, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2019, the latest year for which data is available, 846 bicyclists were killed and 49,000 were injured in traffic crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which collects data from police reports. The fatalities in urban areas rose by 49% since 2010.

The CDC estimated that more than 143,000 bicyclists visited emergency rooms in 2019 because of a vehicle-related incident.

These crashes continue to draw headlines. In July, New York Jets assistant coach Greg Knapp, an avid bicyclist, died from injuries he suffered after he was struck by a car while biking in San Ramon, California.

The same month, two bicyclists were killed in vehicle crashes within 17 hours near Richmond, Virginia. That state strengthened its bicycle safety law earlier this year.

 

“We see a lot of jurisdictions frame safety campaigns around safe passing laws, which is great,” McLeod said. “It focuses on the driver’s behavior.”

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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