July 12, 2013

Allen Afield: We bicyclists needn't be driven crazy or off the road

By Ken Allen

Last month a truck hit and killed a Massachusetts bicyclist during the Trek Across Maine, making an enormous impression on me for two reasons:

The incident occurred on Route 2 just north of my home, a delightful rural highway that I pedal often.

In my humble opinion, a Maine bicycling law encourages motor vehicles to come too close to bicyclists, creating a danger that could lead to fatalities. More on this point in a moment.

First, let me say that I have bicycled seriously for 24 years (like most days from April through early December) and find the sport safe and most drivers cooperative. When motor-vehicle operators do something annoying or dangerous to me, it's usually from ignorance, not intentional meanness.

That fatality in the Trek Across Maine caught my attention, though, mostly because the incident reminded me of a pet peeve. Maine has a law that prohibits motor vehicles on highways from coming within three feet of bicycles, which -- in my opinion -- encourages driver to pass pedalers too closely on roads with 55 mph speed limits.

A 3-foot prohibition might work in cities with a 25 mph limit, but on a road like Routes 27 or 2 with an often-broken 55 mph, I do not want a vehicle passing me three or even four feet away traveling at 62 mph or more.

For starters, if my wheels hit a small rock or crack, and I fall left as a motor vehicle speeds past too closely, then I have a good chance of getting run over. When lying on the ground after a fall from a 58-cm road bike, I've measured from the wheel track to the top of my head -- 6 feet, 2 inches.

In fact, when I'm pedaling on Routes 27, 2, 3 or 17, my usual roads with breakdown lanes, motorists give me a much wider clearance than three feet, often well beyond six feet. Even on narrow highways, vehicles often pass well beyond me. So motor-vehicle operators know more than legislators, who passed the 3-foot law that may encourage drivers to come too closely.

Here are other salient points about bicycles on public highways:

People occasionally tell me that bicycles should be prohibited from public highways and when someone utters this claim, I explain that in my opinion the 14th Amendment would prohibit a bicycle ban -- the part that says "no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States."

In short the Constitution says that I cannot be denied privileges extended to other citizens until I've done something to lose the privilege. My comment needs testing in the Supreme Court for a definitive conclusion and no, I wouldn't debate this point with anyone because I'm no lawyer.

Second, bicycles predate motor vehicles. Long before the invention of motor vehicles, walkers, runners, horseback riders, horse-drawn wagons and then bicyclists used public byways -- a precedent.

Third, most bicyclists drive vehicles, so they pay gasoline taxes that help build roads and bridges, and I'm a good example. I drive a half-ton, two-wheel pickup and have occasionally given gas money to two daughters and to Jolie, my intrepid companion, so I have bought gasoline for four people, which has paid for my road use.

I also bicycle for three-season transportation, which lessens harmful pollution -- my contribution to the environment.

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