Legally Speaking: For better or for worse, stay involved
When it comes to bicycle laws, not every idea is a good idea, but regardless of what comes up in the halls of power, we cyclists need to remain engaged.
I wrote about efforts to pass a Stop As Yield law, a good law that unfortunately failed in Colorado recently. The cause has been taken up in the California legislature. It’s too early to tell whether that will be successful, but sooner or later, the law, first passed in Idaho in 1983, will be passed in a second state. And then another. And another. You just can’t keep a good idea down.
On the other hand, remember the proposed law in South Dakota that would have required cyclists to stop and dismount when drivers wanted to pass them? Or the proposed law in Missouri that would have required cyclists to attach a 15 foot-high fluorescent orange safety flag to their bikes? That bad idea didn’t just take hold in Missouri; it was also introduced in the Montana legislature, albeit “only” requiring a five-foot high fluorescent orange safety flag.
Thankfully, the legislatures unceremoniously tossed these in the bin. In fact, in a triumph of common sense and reason, the Montana legislature went so far as to consider a bill that would actually contribute to cyclist safety — a minimum safe passing distance law, that would require drivers to pass cyclists with at least 3 feet of distance between the car and bike, and a minimum of 5 feet at speeds over 35mph.
Well, you win some, and you lose some: This common-sense law was shot down in the Senate … And then cyclists went from the frying pan to the fire, with Montana state senate president Scott Sales going on the attack: “They’re some of the rudest people I’ve ever — I hate to say it, but I’m just going to be bold — they’re some of the most self-centered people navigating on highways, or on county roads I’ve ever seen.”
Was Sales referring to dangerous large trucks, frenetic drivers who are late for work, or the legions of distracted drivers that are causing a serious uptick in road violence?
Nope, he was talking about us cyclists. And he wasn’t done. After the vote that killed the safe passing bill, Sales went on to say, “They won’t move over. You can honk at them. They think they own the highway.”
“We try to intimidate you illegally but you still keep thinking you have a right to ride your bike.”
He didn’t stop there:
“They have this entitlement mentality, many of them, that we should just wait for them, and quite frankly I think that’s wrong. … Quite frankly I don’t want more of them in the state because there’s already too many of them as it is.”
“Even though the law requires it, we don’t want to share the road with you, will not operate our vehicles safely around you and want less of you in the state, not more.”
His proposed solution: new legislation that would ban cyclists from any two-lane road in Montana with less than a three-foot shoulder, would require cyclists to be equipped with reflectors on both their bikes and on themselves, and would require cyclists who ride on the road to pay a $25 tax.
“Making the roads safe has nothing to do with inattentive drivers, so put this reflector on, and give us some more money to ride on your own roads.”
Fortunately, Senator Jen Gross, who carried the bill, said that cyclists are already required to obey the law, and drivers are already required to judge distance when passing ambulances and school buses. “We can’t kick bicycles off the road any more than we can ban pedestrians. What we’re trying to do here is bring clarity to the law. The existing language is very vague,” Gross said.
Responding to the canard that cyclists are self-centered freeloaders, Senator Dick Barrett, who has been cycling for 40 years, pointed to where his car was parked outside and said, “I frankly resent the characterization of [bicyclists] as self-centered and the characterization they don’t pay any taxes. The idea bicycles are self-centered or disregard traffic or don’t pay taxes is patently ridiculous. It’s just not true.” And Senator Lea Whitford noted that, far from being freeloaders, cyclists bring money into the towns they ride through.
“They’re some of the most self-centered people navigating on highways, or on county roads I’ve ever seen.”
Though cyclists have some defenders in government, we need to speak out, and USA Cycling president Derek Bouchard-Hall’s open letter is a fine example of that.
“You said ‘If cyclists want more safety, it is up to them.’ I wish this were the case. Legal experts report that criminal drivers (D.U.I., hit-and-run, and distracted driving) are the real culprits in the worst cycling tragedies. And transportation experts have concluded that state investments in bicycle safety (such as better laws and infrastructure) are by far the most important measures to ensure road safety (and to reduce frustration) for all road users.
“Regarding who pays for the roads, your belief that cyclists do not pay their fair share is a very common misperception. Most Montana cyclists are also drivers and contribute to road building and maintenance just like all other drivers – through gas taxes and Montana vehicle licensing fees. In addition, cyclists as drivers across the country contribute to funding the federal Highway Trust Fund (HTF), which as you know forms the majority of Montana’s road budget. Bicycles (unlike cars and trucks) do not deteriorate roads (thus do not add cost) and have as much right to the public right of way as any other user.”
And you didn’t need to be a prominent leader to participate either — cyclists inundated the Montana Legislature with letters opposing the anti-cycling measure. PeopleForBikes members alone sent 577 letters. When the bill came up for a hearing on April 5, cyclists showed up in force to oppose the bill. Their voices were heard, too; the Senate committee killed the “invasive species tax” in a unanimous, bipartisan vote.
Oh, and that bill we mobilized to kill? It was all just Scott Sales’s idea of an April Fool’s Joke. It’s quite an expensive joke for Montana’s taxpayers. Maybe he thought it was funny, but what if we hadn’t stopped it?
Every so often, bad ideas are floated, often for political reasons, sometimes due to misunderstanding of the law, or because the lawmaker knows nothing about the reality of riding a bike. We have to remain vigilant. When this happens, we must call it out and be ready to open a discussion and educate lawmakers and journalists.
The quick response from USA Cycling, PeopleForBikes, and other organizations made a statement. We won’t take these attacks lying down. But we can’t rely on someone else to do all the pulling; we all need to get involved. How? Stay vigilant; when these anti-cycling initiatives appear in our state legislatures, send letters to legislators, confront false arguments, educate legislators and others on the law and common sense, speak out and spread the word on social media. Together, we can expose the falsehoods and for what they are and keep bad laws off the books.
Now read the fine print:
Bob Mionske is a former competitive cyclist who represented the U.S. at the 1988 Olympic Games (where he finished fourth in the road race), the 1992 Olympics, as well as winning the 1990 national championship road race.
After retiring from racing in 1993, he coached the Saturn Professional Cycling team for one year before heading off to law school. Mionske’s practice is now split between personal-injury work, representing professional athletes as an agent and other legal issues facing endurance athletes (traffic violations, contract, criminal charges, intellectual property, etc.).
Mionske is also the author of “Bicycling and the Law,” designed to be the primary resource for cyclists to consult when faced with a legal question. It provides readers with the knowledge to avoid many legal problems in the first place, and informs them of their rights, their responsibilities, and what steps they can take if they do encounter a legal problem. If you have a cycling-related legal question please send it to Bob, and he will answer as many of these questions privately as he can. He will also select a few questions to answer in this column. General bicycle-accident advice can be found at bicyclelaw.com.
The information provided in the “Legally Speaking” column is not legal advice. The information provided on this public website is provided solely for the general interest of the visitors to this website. The information contained in the column applies to general principles of American jurisprudence and may not reflect current legal developments or statutory changes in the various jurisdictions and therefore should not be relied upon or interpreted as legal advice. Understand that reading the information contained in this column does not mean you have established an attorney-client relationship with attorney Bob Mionske. Readers of this column should not act upon any information contained in the website without first seeking the advice of legal counsel.