Worcester, Mass. 
May 27, 2001 

Bicyclists ready to stand up for rights

By 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 enforced." 
  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 law." 
  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. 
 Cycling 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 car-bike crashes. 
  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. 
  Although 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 cyclists. 
  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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