Change the law, change the world
Most traffic laws were designed to move cars from here to there, with maximum speed and efficiency. Very few were written by cyclists, or with the participation of anyone who has ever been on a bike beyond the age of 12.
As a result, bike traffic is usually nothing more than an afterthought shoehorned into the laws and traffic lanes — without regard to whether it actually makes sense.
That may have worked in decades past when most cyclists never left their own neighborhoods and riders, spandex-clad or otherwise, were an anomaly on the roadway. But things have changed, as more and more cyclists are sharing traffic-clogged roads with motor vehicles, as well as pedestrians.
At the same time, our government has a significant stake in promoting cycling, whether in terms of improving the health of its citizens or the health of our planet. Or just reducing the number of cars on our overcrowded roads.
As a result, they have an obligation to reform traffic laws in ways that will to encourage cycling and protect the safety of all bicyclists, whether they use their bikes for recreation or transportation.
The following are my suggestions for ways our existing laws regarding can — and should — be changed, to help us all get home safely, and make every ride a little more enjoyable.
Maybe together we can do something to change the laws. And help get more people out of their cars, and onto the saddle.
1. Fix California’s new three-foot passing law
After two previous vetoes, California Governor Jerry Brown finally signed the latest attempt at mandating a minimum three-foot distance when passing a bike rider within the state, replacing the previous vague instructions to pass at a safe distance that did not interfere with the rider.
Unfortunately, the law was significantly watered down before it ever reached his desk. A section allowing drivers to briefly cross the center line when safe to do so was removed (see #4 below), and a clause was inserted allowing drivers to pass at less then three feet after slowing down and using caution, rather than requiring drivers to wait until it is safe to pass.
By allowing drivers to pass at less than three feet, it removes all teeth from the law, maintaining the current vague standard and making it virtually impossible to enforce unless a driver actually strikes a cyclist.
This needs to be corrected if the law is to be effective in improving safety and compliance.
2. Prohibit turning into the path of an oncoming cyclist
Among the most dangerous situations any rider will face is when a driver passes on the left, then cuts across his path to make an immediate right turn. Or when a driver makes a left directly in front of an oncoming rider.
Most of the time they get away with it. And sometimes they don’t, which can result in a serious, often fatal, accident in which the rider smashes into the side of the turning vehicle.
Too many drivers underestimate the speed of a bike, and think they’ve got time to complete the turn. Or they drive too aggressively, and assume they have the skill to pull off an exceptionally risky move — or want to send a message by forcing the cyclist to panic stop in order to avoid them.
The only way to stop it and protect the safety of cyclists is to ban it entirely — and require that drivers wait until any oncoming rider passes before making their turn, whether right or left.
3. Ban the “I just didn’t see him” excuse
Too often, cyclists and drivers try to defy the laws of physics by occupying the same space at the same time. When that happens, the driver inevitably blames the cyclist, or claims he just didn’t see the rider.
And too often, they get away with it.
However, the law requires drivers to be alert and aware of the traffic conditions around them at all times. Which means that they are required to see, and take notice of, any bicyclists or other vehicles on the road around them.
Granted, there may be situations where riders are hidden behind another vehicle, or riding in the driver’s blind spot or on the wrong side of the road. But in the vast majority of cases, there’s no reason why an alert driver shouldn’t be able to see any cyclist sharing the road with them. And if you can see the driver, he or she should certainly be able to see you.
So let’s put the responsibility exactly where it belongs, and prohibit any use of the “I just didn’t see him” excuse, unless it can be clearly demonstrated that it wasn’t possible to see the rider under the existing conditions.
4. Clarify that drivers are allowed to leave their lane to pass a bike
As a driver, I was taught that it’s okay to briefly go into the other lane or cross the yellow line in order to pass a cyclist safely. And I’ve always understood that the law not only allowed that, but encouraged it.
But while some L.A. drivers do just that, many others — including my own wife — are reluctant to pass a cyclist if it means putting a wheel on the divider line, let alone actually crossing it. Instead, they slowly drive behind the rider, becoming angrier and more impatient with every passing moment. Or they zoom past at the first opportunity, whether or not there’s actually room to pass.
So let’s make it clear that every driver is allowed to briefly enter the other lane or cross the center line to pass a cyclist — as long as it can be done safely and there are no other vehicles in the way.
5. Prohibit unnecessary blocking of bike lanes
Here’s one of my pet peeves: You’re riding in the bike lane along a busy street, when suddenly there’s a film crew with their trucks parked on the side of the road (this is L.A., after all). And even though none of the trucks extend into it, they put up safety cones blocking the bike lane, and force riders to risk their own safety, for no reason other than their convenience.
Maybe it’s a delivery truck double-parked in the bike lane. Maybe utility workers, cable installers or parents dropping off their kids at soccer practice. Or any of the countless other reasons people needlessly, and thoughtlessly, block bike lanes.
So let’s stop it, already.
It’s already against the law to double park, in or out of a bike lane, and while state law technically allows parking in bike lanes, most localities forbid it. So let’s explicitly ban all parking in bike lanes, and make it a clear violation of the law to block any bike lane or designated bike route unless absolutely necessary, and then only as long as necessary. Because those few feet of asphalt between the two painted lines are there for our safety, not their convenience.
6. Require that bike lanes be maintained in their original condition
This is the other side of the bike lane problem. There are countless reason that could require roadwork in a bike lane. Like maybe they have to fix a problem beneath the roadway, or do some work to accommodate a construction project on the side of the road. Or maybe it’s just a city crew fixing a pothole or crack in the road.
Then once the work is done, they often leave the lane in worse condition — sometime much worse — than before the work was started. The crews seldom take the extra care necessary to level the road surface, resulting in uneven ridges or dips in the roadway. It may not seem significant, and it’s something most drivers wouldn’t even notice. But for a bicyclist, those seemingly minor imperfections can make for a jarring, and potentially dangerous, ride.
The solution is simple. Just require that anytime roadwork is done on a designated bike path, or a bike lane or any other part of the roadway where cyclists can be reasonably expected to ride, the road surface must be returned to it’s original condition — or better. Just take a few extra minutes to smooth out the patches and fill up the dips. Honestly, is that so hard?
7. Drivers should bear responsibility for any collisions in a bike lane
It should be obvious. A bike lane implies the presence of bikes, just as a crosswalk implies the presence of pedestrians. Which makes it the responsibility of the driver to anticipate cyclists, and be on the lookout for them. Those two lines of paint should be sufficient warning to any driver not to enter that lane for any reason without first scanning every inch of it for bicycles.
There is simply no reason why any driver should ever turn into the path of a rider, back in or out of a parking space without checking for oncoming bikes, or open a door into a rider in a bike lane because he didn’t check his mirrors first.
So let’s make it clear that those few feet of asphalt belong to us, and it is the responsibility of the driver to enter, cross or stop in the bike lane safely — not the responsibility of riders to avoid him. And therefore, unless it can be shown that the bike rider was clearly at fault, the driver should bear 100% responsibility for any collision that occurs with a cyclist riding safely, and legally, in any bike lane.
8. Require regular police and maintenance patrols of all off-road bike paths
Instead of fighting our way through traffic or dodging drivers who can’t seem to grasp the concept of a bike lane, an off-road (or Class 1) bike path should provide the perfect opportunity to just relax and enjoy a good ride. But too often, it doesn’t work out that way.
Because these paths are located away from major roadways, they are often out of view of the public, and seldom, if ever, seen by police patrols or maintenance crews. Which means that any problems along the path, from broken pavement to criminal activity, are usually hidden from view.
The result is that many cyclists decide they’re better off taking their chances on the streets — abandoning the alternate routes we’ve fought so hard to get, and often leading to further deterioration.
So let’s demand regular safety and maintenance patrols of all off-road bike paths, both by the local police and the appropriate city, county or state maintenance agency — and require that at least some off those patrols be done by bike. Because any rider knows, things look and feel completely different behind the handlebars than they do behind the wheel.
9. Require a bike lane or sharrows for any roadway with heavy bike traffic
Instead of putting bike lanes and routes where traffic planners think they should go, put them where the cyclists already are.
Take PCH, for instance. Every day, hundreds, if not thousands, of riders brave heavy, high-speed traffic, turning cars and narrow, sometimes non-existent, road shoulders along the coast through Malibu, making this one of the most popular riding routes in Southern California. And yet, despite the near-constant flow of bike traffic, there’s nothing more than a few “Share the Road” signs to accommodate cyclists or improve safety.
So lets insist that form follow function, and require every city and county in the state to study the bike traffic within its jurisdiction. And that any street, road or highway with heavy bike traffic be required to safely accommodate bicycles through the establishment of bike lanes or off-road bike trails that follow the roadway, whenever possible, or by installing sharrows and adequate signage and traffic signals.
10. Assign greater responsibility to the larger — and more dangerous — vehicle
Some members of the European Union — notably Denmark and the Netherlands — have revised their laws to make the driver automatically responsible for any accident involving a cyclist, except in the case of particularly outrageous and illegal behavior by the rider.
While I doubt something like that could ever pass in this country, the rational behind it is sound.
As the law currently stands, drivers and cyclists in this country share equal responsibility for avoiding accidents. But cars and SUVs are, by their very nature, dangerous vehicles, and in any collision between a two-ton vehicle and a cyclist, the rider will inevitably come out on the losing end. Or as the European Commission document behind the proposal to extend the Danish and Dutch laws to other countries puts it, “Whoever is responsible, pedestrians and cyclists usually suffer more.”
So let’s place greater responsibility to avoid an accident — and therefore, greater liability — on the operator of the larger and more dangerous vehicle. Not total responsibility, but enough to reflect the greater vulnerability cyclists and pedestrians face on every road, and at every intersection, every day.
11. Investigate any report of vehicular assault as a criminal violation
For most of us, a car is simply a means of getting from here to there. But as the incident in Mandeville Canyon shows, it can be a deadly weapon in the wrong hands.
From intentionally striking or dooring a cyclist, to forcing a rider off the road or into another vehicle, there are countless ways a driver can use his or her vehicle to threaten or injure a rider. Even something as seemingly harmless as throwing an object from a moving vehicle can cause a rider to lose control of his bike, with potentially deadly consequences.
But just try to report something like that to the police. In most cases, they’ll say they didn’t see it, so there’s nothing they can do. Or if they do bother to respond, usually because of an injury to the rider, they’ll treat is as a traffic accident, rather than the criminal activity it is.
So let’s demand the protection we deserve. Let’s contact our legislators, and insist that they amend the law to clearly specify that anyone who uses a motor vehicle to threaten, intimidate, attack or injure a cyclist or pedestrian should be charged with assault and/or battery with a deadly weapon, and subject to a prison term and seizure of the vehicle, as well as permanent loss of driving privileges. And insist that any report of a motor vehicle being used in such a manner be investigated by the police as a criminal matter, rather than a traffic infraction.
Because your life, and mine, may depend on it.
12. Turn stop signs into yields, and red lights into stop signs
Riding is hard enough without breaking your momentum to stop for a stop sign every other block — especially if there’s no one else at the intersection. Or stopping at a deserted intersection in the middle of the night, and having to endure a seemingly interminable wait for the red light to change
But failure to do so could result in a sizable ticket if you don’t happen to notice the cop coming up behind you.
So lets try a little common sense, instead. Reform the law to reflect what many, if not most, cyclists already do — an approach that’s already been proven to work in the state of Idaho for over a quarter of a century. And allow cyclists to treat stop signs as if they were yields — slow down, look around carefully, and in the absence of conflicting traffic, proceed through the intersection.
For red lights, come to a complete stop, ceasing all forward momentum. Then if there’s other traffic at the intersection, remain stopped and wait for the green light. But if you’re the only one waiting at the light, you should be able to treat it like a stop sign. And once any cross traffic has passed, continue on your way without having to wait for the light to change.
13. Put a permanent end to hit-and-runs
Nearly half of all traffic collisions in Los Angeles are hit-and-runs. And too many of those result in a bike rider writhing in the street fighting for his or her life — a life put in greater risk by the failure of the driver to call for help when every second counts.
One major incentive for drivers to flee is that the penalty for drunk driving is greater than the penalty for hit-and-run. It’s actually to the drivers’ benefit to flee the scene and sober up before they turn themselves in.
So the law has to be changed to make the penalty for hit-and-run equal to the penalty for drunk driving.
But it has to go further. Prison overcrowding means that anyone sentenced for a non-violent offense is likely to be released after serving just a fraction of their sentence.
So let’s take away their licenses. And their cars.
Anyone who would leave the scene of a collision has already shown themselves unfit to be behind the wheel. Their license should be automatically revoked — not suspended — regardless of whether or not they are ever charged or convicted of a crime.
Meanwhile, the car they used to commit the crime should be impounded and held as evidence until a decision is made whether to file charges, and through any trial. If the driver is convicted, the vehicle should be seized and sold, with any proceeds going to the victim. After all, you don’t let a bank robber keep the gun he used. State law already allows the seizure of any vehicle used in a drug crime or to solicit prostitution; isn’t a hit-and-run a little more serious than trolling for a blow job?
One last note.
If the victim of a hit-and-run dies, the driver should face an automatic homicide charge on the assumption that he or she might have survived if the driver had stopped and gotten help, as required by law.