|TELEGRAM & GAZETTE |
Bicyclists ready to stand up for rightsBy Lynne Tolman
In too many places where bicyclists and motorists take to the
road, fear and loathing abound. But it's not as if "there ought to be a
law" for peaceably sharing the road.
There is a law. The
Massachusetts General Laws already say that both bicyclists and motorists
can use all public roads (the exception for bikes is limited-access
highways) and must follow the same rules of the road. That means we all
stop at red lights, make our left turns from the left lane, go one way on
one-way streets, and so forth. Law-abiding cyclists realize that this is
safest for everyone.
But a lot of people just don't
understand. And too often, police officers share the misguided notion that
traffic would be smoother if bicyclists would just get off the road.
Hence the Bicyclist's Bill
of Rights and Responsibilities, a proposed tune-up of the state
traffic laws that will get a legislative hearing next week.
"We're not creating new rights," said Paul Schimek, president
of MassBike, the statewide advocacy
group that is promoting the bill, which is scheduled for a hearing June 5
before the Joint Committee on Transportation. "The law already gives us
these rights, but we need to make sure it's better known and equitably
The bill would consolidate and clarify
scattered and less-than-explicit provisions of state law that apply to
bicyclists, and require police training on the subject.
MassBike's e-mail forum bristles with accounts of police incorrectly
siding with ignorant, impatient, hostile or unlawful motorists against
law-abiding cyclists. Peter Rowinsky of Boston is suing the state police
for arresting him for bicycling on Memorial Drive in Cambridge. Scott
Jenney of North Reading is fighting a charge of disorderly conduct lodged
by Wilmington police who said he was causing a traffic hazard by bicycling
in the road.
Schimek himself was scolded by a Sudbury
police officer this month for making a left turn on his bike from the left
lane. The policeman incorrectly told him that cyclists were supposed to
keep to the right edge of the road and then make the turn by crossing
three lanes of traffic.
"If the police don't even know
what the rules are, how can we expect the public to know, and how can we
expect any fairness?" Schimek said.
The bill calls for
the state Criminal Justice Training Council to put at least two hours'
worth of instruction on bicycle safety enforcement into the basic training
curriculum for police recruits, starting next year. The course would also
be offered to veteran officers, and all would be required to take it
within three years.
Schimek knows he's pedaling uphill
trying to change our car-crazy culture's attitude that bikes are toys and
roads are for automobiles. "There are a lot of public misconceptions about
bicycling, and police officers sometimes share those misconceptions," he
said. "But it seems to me they have a responsibility to know the
He said the bill's language on police training is
borrowed from other legislation promoting law enforcement to help overcome
problematic societal attitudes on a public safety issue: the requirement
for police education on domestic violence. The bike safety enforcement
course would not add hours to the existing basic training and would be
developed by the existing curriculum writers, not an outside group.
"It wouldn't be a big deal to add in bicycle safety" to the
police curriculum on traffic laws, said Sgt. Kathleen Murphy, who heads
the Cambridge Police Department's bicycle patrol unit. "It's just 'same
roads, same rules.' "
Schimek is quick to point out that
cyclists aren't looking for a free ride, so to speak. Riders who break the
rules put themselves in danger and fuel motorists' resentment of bike
traffic, he said, and police should cite scofflaw cyclists. The
Bicyclist's Bill of Rights would make it easier for police to write
tickets for unlawful cycling, such as running red lights or riding on the
sidewalk (only the Cambridge police routinely give out such tickets), and
would increase the maximum fine from $20 to $50.
advocates have done their homework, putting together a clear explanation
of why failing to follow the rules -- in a car or on a bike -- is
dangerous. Part of the proposed police training would be a look at which
types of violations, by motorists and by cyclists, are to blame in
Some of the most frequent causes of
car-bike crashes, according to MassBike's summary analysis of 10 published
studies, in approximate order, riskiest first: wrong-way cycling; cycling
on the sidewalk; bicyclist failing to yield or running a red light or stop
sign; motorist turning left in cyclist's path; and motorist turning right
in cyclist's path. The Boston area also has a high rate of accidents in
which cyclists hit suddenly-opened car doors.
they are the most feared of all bike crashes, fewer than 5 percent of
urban car-bike collisions occur when a motorist is overtaking a cyclist,
according to MassBike. And car-bike collisions account for only about 10
percent of bicyclist visits to hospital emergency rooms; falls and
bike-bike accidents are far more frequent sources of injury to
The bill also would revise the state law that
requires bicycle riders and passengers age 12 and younger to wear helmets.
It would raise the age to 16. Wearing a helmet is common sense at any age,
especially given the difficulties inherent in sharing the road.
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