By Ken Maxwell
There has recently been legislation proposed at the state level to strengthen the laws regarding the minimum safe distance between a cyclist and a passing automobile. I was recently asked my opinion on this proposal, as well my thoughts in general regarding the safety of road cycling in the Blue Water Area.
I am a somewhat avid cyclist, meaning I usually ride 100 miles a week or more during the summer months. I participate in local centuries and triathlons, I’ve ridden ODRAM (One Day Ride Across Michigan), etc. So, while I am not a professional or sponsored rider, neither am I just a casual rider. I enjoy cycling as a way to maintain fitness, and I’m always looking for the next pony to add to my stable (cyclists laugh at themselves because we all end up owning too many bikes!). I’ve also been fortunate enough to ride in France, the UK, China, India, and Germany, so I have at least a little bit of perspective regarding how cycling and cyclists are perceived in the U.S. as compared to some of our European and Eastern neighbors.
Do I feel safe riding on local roads? Yes and no. For the most part, yes, because most drivers are courteous and pass respectfully and don’t act as if I don’t pay taxes. But also, no, because some drivers are ignorant and abusive, don’t obey the existing laws, and become irate that anyone would use our publicly funded roads for anything other than driving a 4000 lb. automobile. I want to ask those people: Are you really in such a rush, and is my life so meaningless to you, that you can’t wait a few seconds to pass me safely? It’s difficult to go on a two or three-hour ride in this area without having at least one driver honk and yell and maybe throw something at you. Due to the frequency of intolerant drivers I choose my biking routes carefully and ride in groups whenever possible.
In response to several well publicized cyclist fatalities in the state, the state legislature is considering a new law that would require a motorist to leave a minimum five-foot distance when passing a cyclist. Failure to leave this minimum distance would be a moving violation and would result in a fine, similar to running a red light or other similar violations.
Will this proposal, if passed, improve the safety of the cycling community? My fellow cyclists may disagree strongly with me, but I’m not sure a 5’ rule is going to do much to improve cyclist safety. Don’t get me wrong, I very much want the law passed, but if a driver is in such a rush that they cannot pass me safely today, is a five-foot rule really going to make any difference? Maybe in court it would matter, but the fact that my wife might win a settlement because someone tried to squeeze between me and oncoming traffic is little comfort to me if I’m dead or in a coma.
For me it boils down to this: the five-foot rule might raise awareness and that has to be a good thing.
Other than the passing distance law under consideration, there are two other situations worth mentioning that come up often, maybe even more often, than the passing distance. One is the “right cross”, where a driver passes the cyclist and then immediately makes a right turn, directly into the cyclist’s path. I have this happen once or twice each summer. Again, the issue is that the driver is in such a hurry that they can’t slow down a bit and allow the cyclist to pass the intersection before making their right turn, or possibly they are simply not aware that they have nearly caused a car-cyclist collision.
The other bad situation is the four-lane road, with two lanes each direction. For some reason this triggers a “race mentality” among the drivers, and God forbid anyone is slowing traffic in the right lane! I avoid these roads whenever possible.
The bottom line is drivers need to be courteous and respectful of riders, and if they can’t do that they need to pay a heavy price or not be driving. In France and Germany, in particular, drivers are exceedingly conscious and careful of cyclist traffic. I think it is the culture in general, because cyclists are much more common in many countries and cities. But drivers also pay a heavy social and economic price if they are involved in a cyclist injury. Here in Michigan, it almost seems like it’s the rider’s fault when there is an injury or death. What were they doing riding on the road in the first place? Until that attitude changes we can pass all the laws we want and there are still going to be confrontations, near misses, and cyclist injuries.
Ken is a graduate of Michigan Technological University with a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering. He has enjoyed living in the Blue Water area his entire life, growing up in Clyde township and currently living in Croswell. Ken is married to Robbin Maxwell and is blessed with two amazing daughters. Formerly the founder and owner of Swell Software, Inc., he now works as Director of Engineering for Express Logic, a San Diego, CA based software engineering firm.
With over 20 years’ experience in software development, Ken has been published several times in technical journals and software engineering whitepapers. This is his first foray into community discussion forums and his hope is to contribute in a positive way.
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