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Bike Laws Test Connecticut

A proposed bill would require Connecticut cyclists to ride single file. Lawmakers should be asking serious questions about the function of streets, safety and what's best for our communities.

A proposed bill by state Senator Kevin Witkos has caused a stir in the bicycle community and riled up all kinds of road users.  In the bill (SB103), the Senator has introduced new language that would “require persons riding bicycles on a roadway to ride single file, rather than two abreast as currently allowed.” 

To those who didn’t know that cyclists are allowed to ride side-by-side, or even that they’re allowed on the road, this might seem like a necessary fix.  But the debate this bill has sparked is an important one and it’s about more than day-riders wanting to ride next to each other on the weekends.

The real question that’s central to this debate (and one that more policymakers should be asking themselves) is this:  What are our streets for?

When asked this question, I think most people in Connecticut would agree that the streets are for getting us quickly where we need to go, by car.  When we come up behind somebody on a bike, hogging the lane or delicately hugging the edge, we may get frustrated and impatiently squeeze past.  Many people honk at cyclists to get out of their way, give them angry glances or yell at them as they pass… or sometimes worse.  Trust me.

Fortunately, cyclists are now protected by a Connecticut law requiring drivers to give three feet of clear distance when passing.  This is good for their safety, but police claim it’s causing more drivers to cross the yellow line.  And this is why the Senator has introduced SB103 – to make it easier for cars to pass cyclists while giving the required three feet. 

The problem is that this law – like others already on the books – takes an environment that’s already harsh and dangerous to cyclists and makes things even more challenging.  It further strips cyclists of their right to use the public right-of-way, treats them as marginal road users and emboldens some drivers’ sense of entitlement to the streets. 

In preparing early recommendations for bicycle planning in the Town of Avon, I received a report of all collisions involving cyclists since 2009; there were ten.  Cyclists were at fault in only two cases.  In three cases, drivers hit cyclists while turning.  In another three, drivers sideswiped cyclists while passing.  And unlike fender-benders, all ten collisions involved injuries.  In other words, the biggest threat to cyclists’ safety is drivers.  Speeding, distracted driving and impatience pose the greatest risks on our streets, not cyclists.

Maybe in a perfect world, drivers and cyclists would each have their own road networks and never get in each other’s way.  This is how things are done in bike havens like Copenhagen and increasingly in big cities like New York and Chicago.  But this isn’t possible everywhere, so we also need to learn how to share the roads (as the state has been subtly urging since 2009).

This brings me back to the central question – what are our streets for?  Streets are often the public space in front of our homes where we meet our neighbors and streets connect us to our communities, no matter what vehicle we choose.  Our lawmakers, road designers and police need to acknowledge this and continue protecting Connecticut’s most vulnerable users, rather than making sure they never get in the way of cars.  A growing number of states allow cyclists full use of a travel lane – for their own safety – when the road is too narrow to share side-by-side.  As in Connecticut, many states offer extra legal protection to vulnerable road users.  Designers in places like Portland, Oreg., have figured out how to create “neighborhood greenways” – streets that are shared by drivers, cyclists and people on foot.  These are all steps in the right direction.

As cyclists become more common on our roads and policymakers work towards making our communities safer and more vibrant, we certainly need to revisit our laws.  But we also need to make sure we maintain a healthy dialogue, keep a clear focus on our ultimate objectives, and protect all of the state’s residents, no matter what their preferred mode of travel.

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Larry Linonis February 10, 2013 at 05:37 PM
BIKE FRIENDLY What does that mean ? Is it just the five " E's " as prescribed by the League of American Bicyclists? In order to make progress and get more people riding, the cyclist has to set the example and be " bike friendly "! What has taken a decade or more to accomplish can be undone in short order by a group of cowboys on a weekend ride . How hard is it to single up after hearing " car back " ? There is no loss of individual freedom in doing that. That soccer mom with a van filled with kids may not be too happy trying to get around a group of riders . She is already fifteen minutes late . She will complain to the town and to the police . Maybe the cyclist who doesn't care about the feelings of others should be disciplined in the same manner as the motorist who skims by you. Unfortunately, with the present law and the ambiguous language enforcement isn't possible. The proposed language makes a violation clear. Move over or be cited . Nothing is being asked of the cyclist that shouldn't already be happening. Don't read too much into this . Share the road . For those cyclists who haven't , volunteer to man a bike info tent at a community event ie Septemberfest, Sam Collins Day, or others. Listen to what people have to say about etiquette. I am sure that it will be a real eye opener for you .
charles beristain February 10, 2013 at 07:20 PM
>>The proposed language makes a violation clear. Move over or be cited . << as far as I know, if there is any proposed legislation that just clarifies the law on riding two abreast but doesn't make it illegal, it hasn't been entered into the record for SB103.
Chris McCahill February 11, 2013 at 12:31 AM
I'm afraid my larger point is being missed. It really has very little to do with riding two abreast. I encourage everyone to see the above video on "neighborhood greenways" in Portland. It shows what can be accomplished when we truly share the road. This type of design is possible in villages and cities around Connecticut (from Simsbury to New Haven) as long as strict bicycle laws don't limit cyclists' rights to the road. http://www.streetfilms.org/portlands-bike-boulevards-become-neighborhood-greenways/
Tony Guy February 12, 2013 at 04:12 AM
If a motorist cannot legally pass two cyclists riding abreast then they can't pass a solo cyclists either. Now if you are talking about sharing a wide lane (14ft plus in width), a special privilege given to motorists only alongside cyclists, then the law is quite clear that two cyclists cannot impede the normal flow of traffic. The late soccer mom coming upon a solo cyclist on a narrow lane (less than 14 ft wide) will have to follow until coming upon a passing zone as she would not be able to pass while sharing the lane legally. As such, on a narrow lane roadway, the motorist would rather pass two cyclists riding abreast (shorter pass) then pass two cyclists riding single file, which would require a longer passing distance, and greater exposure to the risk of oncoming traffic.
Tony Guy February 12, 2013 at 04:24 AM
Susan, I suspect it is hard to pass any slow vehicle on a busy road... does it matter what they are driving? Is your trip anymore important then that of a cyclist? Perhaps the trip of a businessman driving the Mercedes is more important then your trip to the nail salon... should you pull over an let him pass?

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