- Matt Mignanelli
Vermont's idyllic byways have long lured bicyclists who enjoy the scenery and fresh air, usually without incident. But last year, tragedy struck — again and again. Between April 14 and September 7, cars hit and killed four cyclists on country roads in Weybridge, Hinesburg, Ferrisburgh and Pawlet. No cyclists had died in Vermont in the previous decade.
Suddenly, the state went from best to worst in national rankings for bicycle safety, said Emily Boedecker, executive director of Local Motion, a Burlington-based nonprofit promoting "people-powered transportation and recreation."
The state's biking community saw the worrisome escalation in fatalities as a sign that it was time to seek legislative remedies to address the long-standing tension between cyclists and motorists. As a result, the legislature is weighing several measures.
To reduce the risks that riders face, several cycling lawmakers have introduced a traffic-safety package that would clarify the rules of road sharing for motorists and so-called "vulnerable users" — that is, bicycles and pedestrians.
Most of the changes are in the transportation bill, which the House passed 124-19, including a mandate that motorists steer their cars and trucks at least four feet from bicyclists when passing. It says motorists negotiating driveways and turns are legally obligated to yield to passing cyclists. For violations, the bill proposes fines starting at $200.
Cyclists would also have added responsibilities. The bill requires bikes to stay on the right edge of roads, moving closer to the center only if conditions on shoulders are unsafe because of debris or cracked pavement. The bill also instructs bikers to use hand signals to warn drivers when they plan to turn or slow down — if they can do so safely.
State law already requires bikers to have lights for evening and night rides — white in front and red or a large reflective surface in the rear. The bill doesn't add any new requirement for bikers to wear bright clothing. Many bikers do, but several said they don't want to be forced to. "I would hate to see high-visibility clothes mandates," said Roger Bombardier Jr., who pedals more than 3,000 miles a year commuting from Richmond to his information technology job at the University of Vermont.
The four-foot requirement for vehicles passing bikes is the most contentious provision in the House bill. It's the law in one state — Pennsylvania — while 26 other states specify a three-foot buffer. Bombardier is in favor of the wider margin, noting that current law only requires drivers to exercise "due care" when passing a "vulnerable user," without defining the term. "Some police interpreted that as meaning as long as a vehicle didn't hit you, that was 'due care,'" he said.
Senate Transportation Committee chair Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle) argues that the four-foot rule — or any other measurable buffer — would be impossible to enforce. He would prefer to enhance bike safety through education rather than overly prescriptive laws. The Senate has yet to vote on its version of the transportation bill, but Mazza's views suggest there may be some bumps ahead.
Also in the House transportation bill is a proposed $16.7 million for bike and pedestrian projects and safety education efforts, $5 million more than the current year. The bulk of the increase — $4 million — is in funding for bike and pedestrian projects in 60 communities. They include planning and building bike paths, constructing sidewalks and widening lanes.
Another $20,000 enhances a traveling bike safety education program that Local Motion runs for children throughout the state. Boedecker said her organization's Kohl's Kids Bike Smart program reached 7,000 children last year. Local Motion also sponsored classes on "everyday bicycling" for 458 adults. During that same time period, the Vermont Highway Safety Alliance reported 72 crashes that injured cyclists and 21 involving only property damage.
If bike safety laws were to change, how would the state inform motorists? "The Department of Motor Vehicles is going to have to incorporate some re-education into their pamphlets," said House Transportation Committee chair Patrick Brennan (R-Colchester).
Bombardier offered another idea: "Retesting drivers every decade on their vision and knowledge of new laws would help."
Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, an avid cyclist and a race-car driver, wants to see education directed at bikers, not just drivers. "I'm on both sides of this," he said, noting that he pedaled 4,500 miles last summer and put 35,000 miles on his vehicle crisscrossing the state.
Bikers need to take commonsense precautions, he said. "I ride defensively all the time," he added.
Scott said bikers "create a lot of animosity" with drivers when they ride side-by-side in packs that bulge into travel lanes. Ditto when bikers blast through intersections without stopping. The lieutenant governor admitted those behaviors irk him when he's behind the wheel.
On the other hand, Scott said, it would help if motorists "could just ride a few miles in somebody else's seat." Many motorists underestimate how fast bikes travel and cut them off when turning, he said, leading to collisions or frantic maneuvering by the cyclist. "And for those who don't ride, it is hard to understand how dangerous riding on gravel can be," Scott said, referring to road shoulders that are often covered with it.
Removing debris and other hazards such as sand and gravel from shoulders is a new priority for the Agency of Transportation, which maintains 3,200 miles of highway. And the agency is repairing more potholes and cracks in shoulders and widening roads — all with cyclists in mind, said Kevin Marshia, chief engineer in the highway division. "We have absolutely over the last decade changed our thinking," he said.
The agency is in the midst of the three-stage VTrans On-Road Bicycle Plan to improve safety and better accommodate cyclists, whether they are commuters or recreational riders. The first stage, which has been completed, ranked roads based on current and potential bicycle use. The next phase will look at crash data and road conditions on high-priority corridors. The final step is to identify strategies to carry out the needed road improvements.
Those cyclist-friendly ugrades can't come soon enough for Matt Boulanger of South Burlington, who commutes by bike to Williston, where he works as a planner. "I have been hit by a distracted driver, and I've had a lot of close calls and a handful of aggressive-driver situations," he said. "I wear a camera when riding, because if I get injured or killed by a car and cannot speak for myself, I want there to be a record of what happened."
While he acknowledged that infrastructure improvements — wider roads, separate bike lanes and devices such as speed bumps to slow vehicles — take time and lots of money, he praised the agency for moving in that direction: "The best bike infrastructure I use on my daily commute is a painted bike lane with no physical separation from the cars passing me at 45 mph." It's safer than nothing, he said, "but I'd challenge anybody to go ride that section of street during the morning rush hour and tell me they felt safe."
Rep. Curt McCormack (D-Burling-ton), who serves on the House Transportation Committee, suggested that requiring bicyclists to pay a fee to register their bikes would help pay to fix some potholes. "It's a way for bikers to be taken seriously," he said, because they would be making an investment in the roads they ride — just as drivers do.
Scott dismissed that idea, arguing, "It would create a lot of bureaucracy for little return."
However Vermont gets them, safe routes are vital to a growing number of Vermonters and tourists, according to Boedecker at Local Motion.
"We need to change our roads. We need to change our laws. And most important, we need to change our culture," she said. "We need to think of our roads as our biggest shared space. We all have responsibility on our roads to be visible and respectful of each other."