Whether into bicycling or not, no one wants to see cyclists hurt or injured in car accidents. But when Anthony Shalna of South Weymouth read my last column, in which I suggested ways we could rewrite laws to better protect cyclists, he felt compelled to point out that safety is a two-way street.
“You neglected to mention . . . why bicyclists should also have stronger laws regulating them,” Shalna wrote. “They are famous for ignoring traffic laws, driving on sidewalks, running red lights and stop signs.”
As bicycling becomes more popular, sharing the road becomes a tug-of-war for many motorists and cyclists. Shalna’s solution to level the playing field would be to tax bicyclists for their use of public streets. I’m not so sure about that, but Shalna is correct when he says that a number of cyclists routinely ignore common rules of the road.
Legislators tried to address the problem a few years ago when they reconfigured state law to allow police to ticket bicyclists for moving violations, just as they would motorists. But the law has a major loophole: Nothing happens to bicyclists who ignore the tickets. It’s a de facto honor system.
For this week’s column I decided to cover a few more cycling-related laws that could stand some improving, starting with that loophole.
Toothless ticketsAs things stand, police statewide are able to ticket cyclists for moving violations such as running red lights or failing to signal turns, with a set fine of $20 per infraction. But given the lack of penalties for scofflaws, there’s less incentive for police to expend time and resources to ticket riders.
I thought it would be instructive to see how other bike-centric places around the country handle cycling infractions, so I called authorities in Seattle, Denver, and Gainesville, Fla.
Some states, such as Colorado, treat unpaid cycling violations very seriously. If you don’t pay your ticket, you will be summonsed to court, and if you don’t appear in court, a warrant will be issued for your arrest, said Terrie Langham, the Denver County Court administrator.
In other places, cyclists who fail to pay tickets are more indirectly penalized.
“If a cyclist is issued a citation, and if they don’t pay the citation, their driver’s license can be suspended,” said Darry Lloyd, spokesman for the Florida state attorney’s office in Gainesville.
If a cyclist doesn’t have a Florida driver’s license, Lloyd said, the person’s name is logged into the state’s computer system with a red flag next to it. If the person ever applies for a license, the flag will pop up, and the outstanding ticket will have to be paid before the license will be issued.
In Portland, Ore., reputedly the most bike-friendly city in the country, they’re even tougher on riders who don’t pay up.
“Cyclists get issued the same tickets as drivers. Same fines, same laws for the most part,” said Sergeant Pete Simpson, spokesman for the Portland Police Bureau. “The ramifications here if they don’t pay are that their driver’s license would be suspended and it goes on their driving record.”
The state of Washington, however, handles bicycle infractions pretty much as we do in Massachusetts, said Gary Ireland, a Seattle Municipal Court official. Bike tickets there are not tied to your eligibility to drive a motor vehicle, and there are no criminal punishments for failing to pay a ticket.
If you don’t pay a bicycling ticket in Seattle, a collection agency hired by the court will start calling you. But that’s about it.
Seems to me there could be a workable middle ground. Maybe Massachusetts should treat unpaid bicycling tickets just like it does unpaid parking tickets. If you accrue two or more, you can’t renew your car’s registration, or your driver’s license.
How to treat out-of-town college students, who don’t have a Massachusetts driver’s license, and perhaps never will, is trickier. But most college and university police departments already have an established line of communication with the Registry of Motor Vehicles, to whom they report unpaid, school-issued parking tickets. What if the Registry simply forwarded information about unpaid bicycle tickets to various schools?
If a school can refuse to issue a degree to a student who, say, hasn’t returned library materials, is there any reason it couldn’t withhold a degree until outstanding bike tickets are paid?
Of course, even these changes would still leave adults who bike, but don’t own cars, unaccountable. And actually enforcing the rules of the road when it comes to cyclists is certainly a big hurdle. But at least something, it seems, needs to change.
Crossing the walk
Multiuse paths, such at the Southwest Corridor, the Minuteman Bikeway, and the Northern Strand Community Trail, are godsends to cyclists. But at various points, they all intersect public streets, which leads to a dilemma: Can cyclists stay on their bikes when the path becomes a crosswalk on a public street, or do they need to dismount and walk ?
According to state law, bicycles are considered vehicles, and vehicles aren’t allowed to be operated in crosswalks. But one of the main purposes of multiuse paths is to facilitate the flow of bicycles. Couldn’t an exception be made within our legal codes to allow bicyclists on such paths to either slow down or stop at street crossings, but remain on their bikes as they cross?
Ken McLeod, legal guru for the League of American Bicyclists, ranks Colorado as having some of the best bicycling laws in the country, so I looked up the state’s rule. According to Colorado Uniform Motor Vehicle Law, a bicyclist can remain on his or her bicycle while on a sidewalk or when using a crosswalk. However, all cyclists “shall yield the right-of-way to any pedestrian, and shall give an audible signal before overtaking and passing such pedestrian. A person riding a bicycle in a crosswalk shall do so in a manner that is safe for pedestrians.”
Boulder’s city ordinances further state that a cyclist can’t go any faster than 8 miles per hour in a crosswalk, and must go even slower in situations where motorists might have a tough time stopping.
One could argue — and certainly, many in Massachusetts do — that sidewalks and crosswalks are for walking, not bicycling. But walkers on multiuse paths are already accustomed to sharing such spaces with cyclists, so it would hardly be a leap for them to expect to share crosswalks along such paths. (Despite our current law, lots of cyclists stay on their bikes, anyway. I know I often do.)
A few years ago Andrew Fischer, a lawyer in Boston who specializes in cycling cases, wrote a bill that would have given cyclists in such situations the right to remain on their bikes (as well as right of way over cars) where multiuse paths cross streets. The legislation, sponsored by state Senator William N. Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat, went nowhere.
But with more and more cyclists using the roads, and more multiuse paths being planned, a second attempt could be in order.Peter DeMarco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His Facebook page is “Who Taught You to Drive?”and on Twitter @whotaughtU2driv.