Bicycling safety and the law

Aug 19, 2009 at 5:00 am

Recent cyclist deaths and the newly launched “Street Sense” campaign — a city-backed program promoting road awareness — demand an alternative perspective.

Cyclists are threatened, injured and killed because:

1) Drivers drink; 2) car brakes fail; 3) roads are not always dry; 4) passengers, food, phones and on-board electronics distract drivers; 5) drivers are blinded by sunlight, car lights, and dirty, wet or icy windshields; 6) drivers lose control of their vehicles; 7) the medicated, the angry, the infirm and the stupid all drive cars.

None of the above is dependent upon “respect” commanded by the behavior of cyclists. Quit blaming cyclists.

This is Metro law: Every person riding a bicycle on any roadway shall be subject to the provisions of this traffic code applicable to the driver of any vehicle, except those provisions of this traffic code which by their very nature can have no application. This is excellent law. It acknowledges differences. Cyclists have no bumpers, no reinforced doors and roofs, no airbags, no headrests, no filtered air systems or locking doors. Cyclists, by their very nature, are vulnerable. Cyclists are not protected by the automotive industry, the insurance industry, the police, the League of American Bicyclists or the courts. The legal exception assures cyclists, pedestrians and wheelchair users can protect themselves and remain lawful.

Most accidents happen at intersections governed by lights and stop signs. A cyclist stopped at a light, straddling her bicycle, flat-footed, has no accelerating ability and is incapable of avoiding sudden threats. On the other hand, a slow-moving cyclist is very responsive and maneuverable, very capable of avoiding sudden threats. Threats to a cyclist stopping at an intersection include: 1) drivers turning the wrong way into a one-way street and head-on into the stopped and “planning-on-a-left-turn” cyclist; 2) a truck approaching the waiting cyclist from behind and failing to stop; 3) a stopped vehicle behind the cyclist being pushed into the cyclist by a vehicle that didn’t stop; 4) the chain-reaction collisions of cars running red lights (when cars crash into each other, cyclists, pedestrians and wheelchair users become eggs on a billiard table); 5) the corner thug. Stopping at intersections makes the cyclist a sitting target. Slowing, yielding the right-of-way and proceeding cautiously — rather than stopping — is not only safer for the cyclist, but it is legal. The law’s exception permits the vulnerable cyclist to leave dangerous intersections safely.

Intersections are dominated by idling and accelerating engines, each spewing carcinogenic exhaust. Pedestrians, wheelchair users and cyclists wait at intersections without the benefit of sealed, filtered, conditioned air. Leave intersections ASAP. Even though it may irk drivers in a line of idling or creeping cars, cyclists who value their lungs should move ahead of the line of exhaust pipes. Until motor vehicles no longer require exhaust pipes (or when exhaust pipes terminate in the cabs of vehicles), we can be grateful for the wisdom of Metro’s ordinance. Negligible local mobile source emissions regulations and a narrow interpretation of Metro law conflict with the “privileges or immunities” clause in Amendment XIV of the Constitution.

Metro’s legal exception helps correct the design and built-in inequities of our roads. Lane widths were not designed for bicycles. Traffic lights are not timed for the commuting speed of cyclists. Some traffic control systems totally ignore cyclists. Road speed, design and control all work against cyclists.

Tips for surviving Louisville roads

Ride 4 feet away from parked cars. The sudden opening of a door from a parked car will either take you down immediately or cause you to swerve away from it and into oncoming traffic that did not expect you to be sharing the travel lane.

Don’t let local bike lanes lull you into a false sense of security — they are often poorly designed and full of debris.

Adopt a controlled yet unpredictable riding style to keep motorists alert to your presence and maneuverability. Riding predictably lulls drivers into thinking they know what a cyclist is going to do. Cyclists often swerve quickly and without notice to dodge glass, roofing tacks, potholes, missing utility caps, squirrels and pedestrians.

Ride within your comfort zone. If you must ride the sidewalks, ride slowly, carefully, courteously and watch out for motor vehicles traveling alleys, drives, parking lots and intersecting streets. Many accidents and deaths happen when cyclists are hit from behind. At times it is safer for cyclists and wheelchair users to ride against traffic.

Focus on the threats — motor vehicles and road conditions — not the signs and the lights. Lights and signs do not kill cyclists, motor vehicles do.  

Jackie Green is co-owner of Bike Couriers Bike Shop.