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Who taught you to drive?

Stronger, clearer laws are needed to protect bicyclists

A bicyclist waited to cross Massachusetts Avenue in Boston.

Essdras M Suarez/globe staff/file 2013

A bicyclist waited to cross Massachusetts Avenue in Boston.

A few weeks ago the Massachusetts Department of Transportation made news by announcing a big campaign — made possible by a nearly $500,000 federal grant — to teach motorists about sharing the road with cyclists. The underlying goal is to reduce the number of accidents in which cyclists are injured or killed — a serious public safety issue that hasn’t been remedied, despite hundreds of miles of bike lanes being added to our roads each year.

More education is obviously needed. But before the state dives into the program, I’d like to pose this question: Just how good are the bicycling laws we’re going to be telling everyone about?

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Could some of them use some upgrading?

My best example is our state law about what motorists should do when passing a cyclist on a public street.

“In approaching or passing a person on a bicycle, the operator of a motor vehicle shall slow down and pass at a safe distance and at a reasonable and proper speed,” reads Massachusetts General Law Chapter 90, Section 14.

Good advice. But what if you’re on a two-lane road, and there’s not enough room for you to safely pass a bicyclist without crossing over a double solid yellow center line?

How much should you “slow down”?

And what, exactly, is “a safe distance”?

Several states, such as California, have specific language requiring a minimum 3-foot distance between the side of your car and any cyclist you pass. But without such wording in our state law, could a motorist argue that 2 feet, or 1 foot, or 6 inches, is safe enough, so long as there’s no contact with the biker?

Agree or disagree, the following bike-related laws strike me as being in need of some help.

Three feet

Ken McLeod is the driving force behind Bike Law University, a great blog about national cycling rules that’s accessible through the League of American Bicyclists website. He says that 25 states and the District of Columbia have laws that establish a minimum distance a motorist must give a cyclist — typically 3 feet.

The state with the best passing law is New Hampshire, McLeod says. Its law reads: “Every driver of a vehicle, when approaching a bicyclist, shall ensure the safety and protection of the bicyclist and shall exercise due care by leaving a reasonable and prudent distance between the vehicle and the bicycle. The distance shall be presumed to be reasonable and prudent if it is at least 3 feet when the vehicle is traveling at 30 miles per hour or less, with one additional foot of clearance required for every 10 miles per hour above 30 miles per hour.”

Wow, pretty clear.

Maine, McLeod said, also has a good law about passing. In Maine, a motorist must give 3 feet, but the kicker is that whenever a motorist and bicyclist collide, the motorist is automatically at fault for failing to pass safely.

MassBike, the state’s largest cycling advocacy group, has been trying for several years to get a bill passed that would up the penalty to $250 for motorists who pass cyclists “at an unsafe distance or at an unreasonable speed, follow [cyclists] at an unsafe distance, slow or stop in front of a [cyclist] for the purpose of interfering with [their] movement, or engage in any other behavior intended to interfere with or frighten a [cyclist].”

Add to that some of the specifics of New Hampshire’s and Maine’s laws, and you might have the best cycling protection in the land.

Crossing the line

MassBike was the driving force behind Massachusetts’ last major upgrade to cycling laws, the 2009 Bicyclist Safety Bill. That law attempts, and often succeeds, in clarifying situations that are dangerous to cyclists, such as people opening car doors without first checking to see if a cyclist is coming.

The law, though, does not say whether drivers can cross a double solid yellow center line to go around bikers.

Some states, such as Vermont, specifically allow this maneuver. Vermont’s laws mandate that drivers should “exercise due care, which includes increasing clearance to pass” cyclists. So it’s OK to “pass to the left of the center of the highway,” i.e., cross a double yellow line, when “the way ahead is clear of approaching traffic.” All we need to do is adopt similar language in Massachusetts.

I expected my suggestion to hit home with local cycling advocates, but frankly, few liked it.

Andrew Fischer, a Boston lawyer who specializes in cycling cases, says you’re not supposed to cross a double yellow line when passing another vehicle in Massachusetts, so the same rule should apply when passing a cyclist. In our state, he says, a cyclist has the right to occupy an entire traffic lane, so drivers should just get used to that.

Peter Stidman, executive director of the Boston Cyclists Union, said he sees more motorists exercising patience, and waiting for safe opportunities to pass cyclists, the way our laws our currently written. “There’s an education going on,” he says.

David Watson, executive director of MassBike, was 50-50 about my suggestion.

“Having discussed this with the police, I do not think it is necessarily worth the legislative effort” to rewrite the law, he said. “Police have told me that they do not have a problem with motorists crossing the center line or double yellow, when it is safe to do so, in order to safely pass bicyclists.”

In my experience, police have mixed views about crossing a double yellow. Some have told me you can cross one if it’s safe; others view double yellow lines as no different than physical road barriers, which you’d never attempt to cross.

Officially, state law says you can’t cross a double yellow, and if you do, you can be ticketed $100. So, it’s a guessing game for motorists — can I, or can’t I?

I feel that clarity is always better, and that fewer cyclists would get squeezed to the curb, or feel pressured by motorists to speed up, if our driving code clearly stated that drivers who want to pass bicyclists may cross the center line when it’s safe to do so.

Clogged lanes

State Senator William N. Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat, has filed a bill that would fine motorists $100 for parking, stopping, or standing in a marked bike lane. The bill would help clarify our present law regarding bike lanes, which is all too confusing for my taste.

Technically, motorists are not forbidden from driving in a bike lane: They’re just not allowed to obstruct cyclists. That might sound like a simple rule, but it isn’t. For instance, there’s nothing in the law that prevents a motorist from pulling into a bike lane to back up into a parking space, even if that means an oncoming cyclist has to come to a full stop.

Again, it would benefit all if our legal codes explicitly listed what rights both motorists and cyclists have to bike lanes.

It’s worth noting that Boston already has a similar ordinance on the books. But be it buses on Albany Street, or students along Commonwealth Avenue, drivers still idle in bike lanes, says Stidman of the Cyclists Union.

The eventual solution, he maintains, would be to build a network of bike lanes that are physically separated from the road, so that no cars can drive in them at all.

Until that day comes, though, clarifying the law, and further educating drivers, can’t hurt.

Peter DeMarco can be reached at peter.demarco@globe.com. His Facebook page is “Who Taught You to Drive?
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