VERMONT — Vermont is renowned for being a great place to ride a bike. Scenery and quiet country roads abound. Safety, however, is in shorter supply. With roughly 50 percent of the roads unpaved and many without a designated shoulder, it takes bravery, luck and good handling skills to keep the rubber side down.
Bike advocates are hoping to better cyclists’ odds this legislative session with three bills that confer and clarify rights and responsibilities for motorists and cyclists. Though still in the early miles of the legislative journey, the bills are already experiencing a bumpy ride, as the Senate Transportation Committee expresses concerns about enforcement and the chance of increased hostility between bikers and motor vehicles.
The centerpiece of the bike-safety bills — H.577, H.578 and S.275 — is a new requirement that motorists leave at least 3 feet between their vehicles and a cyclist while passing that cyclist. A similar recommendation has existed for some time in the driver’s manual from the Department of Motor Vehicles but does not have the force of law.
Other features of the proposals include designating cyclists as “vulnerable users” in relation to the negligent operation of a motor vehicle; giving cyclists the ability to “take the lane” to make left turns; and further protecting bike riders from the dreaded “right hook,” which happens when a car turns right immediately in front of a cyclist going in the same direction.
Nancy Schultz, executive director of the Vermont Bicycle and Pedestrian Coalition, says the 3-foot-rule concept has been around for a long time. Wisconsin has had such a law since 1973, she notes. Eight other states also have it, and an equal number are working on one right now.
For Vermont, Schultz sees the main benefit of such legislation as “the opportunity to educate the general public. Because motorists are often unaware of what it feels like to be passed too fast and too close when you’re on a bicycle.”
Sympathy for cyclists was flowing freely at the Senate Transportation Committee hearing on S.275 a few weeks ago, especially from Senator Philip Scott (R-Washington), 49, an avid race-car driver and road-bike rider. Scott couldn’t endorse the 3-foot rule because, he says, “I think it will be very difficult to enforce. I think it’s subjective at best and very hard to administer.”
Scott adds that he’s concerned the law will “create more animosity between motorists and cyclists than we have right now,” explaining that cyclists will upbraid motorists for passing with less than 3 feet, while motorists will resent cyclists for having a special privilege. The bill didn’t get past the committee.
Judy Bond, 54, of Underhill, is the board member of the coalition that’s driving these bills in front of lawmakers this year. She’s been riding road and mountain bikes in Vermont for 15 years, and knows well the feeling of being passed closely at high speed by a car or truck. “You don’t hear them coming,” Bond explains, “so it’s a surprise when the car is that close to you, and you can react badly to that.” Another problem, she adds, is the condition of the road’s shoulder. “If you come across bad pavement, potholes, glass, and if the car is too close to you, you have no options; you have no place to go.”
Bond thinks the Senate Transportation Committee is focusing too much on the enforcement question, when the law’s real purpose is to raise awareness. “They see two people arguing in court over inches,” she says of the senators on the committee, “and I personally don’t agree with it.”
Neither does Jeffrey Miller, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine. That state just enacted a similarly worded 3-foot law in September, with the full support of the law-enforcement community. The key, he says, was being open about the difficulties of enforcing the rule. “We’re not expecting cops to be out there with some sort of special distance-measuring equipment, or running alongside a car with a yardstick to see if the motorist is within 36 inches,” he says. The point, instead, is to communicate that the motorist needs to pass a cyclist safely. And 3 feet, Bond says, better defines a “safe pass.”
Senator Scott questions the propriety of a law that’s not designed to be enforced, and says there are better ways to achieve safety, namely through a cycling component in driver education. “There has to be more respect somewhere, and I’m not sure this piece of legislation creates that,” Scott says.
Meanwhile, the Bicycle and Pedestrian Coalition will meet with law-enforcement representatives to massage the language of the Senate bill into something that might get a more favorable reception. That process will also impact the content of the bills before the House, which are more comprehensive than the Senate version, and include the “vulnerable user” provision, the “take the lane” ability, and the “right hook” law. Advocates reportedly will explain their support of H.577 to the House Judiciary Committee later this week.
But whether or not the coalition is successful in the legislature this year, Schultz says its education efforts, including the “Share the Road” campaign, will continue. “We ask cars to pass bicyclists the same way that they pass another vehicle,” she says. “One of the board members uses the expression, ‘Treat us like a tractor.’”