August 22, 2019

Safe Zone Legislation Pedaling Forward

By Craig Manning | April 7, 2018

On July 7, 2016, a man driving a pickup truck plowed into a group of bicyclists in Kalamazoo. The crash killed five cyclists and injured four others. It also became a lightning rod of controversy and activism for Michigan’s bike community, which has long criticized the state and its legislators for lax bike safety regulations. Now, lawmakers are looking at legislation that could shift the future of bike safety in the state.

The Kalamazoo crash helped make 2016 one of the most dangerous years on record for cyclists in Michigan. According to statistics from the state’s Office of Highway Safety Planning, 38 cyclists were killed in 2016, up from 21 just two years earlier. Many of them were struck from behind by overly aggressive drivers. At least a few cases were hit-and-runs. The League of Michigan Bikers, or LMB, has been working ever since to pass a safe passing distance law to foster safer road sharing between cyclists and drivers. 

Initially the advocacy group’s goal was to get a five-foot passing buffer on the books, which would have helped reverse Michigan’s reputation for lax bike safety laws. 39 states and the District of Columbia have already beaten Michigan to the punch on safe bike passing legislation. 27 of those states (plus D.C.) have laws that require drivers to give at least three feet of space when passing cyclists on the road. North Carolina only demands a two-foot buffer, while nine states require drivers to pass cyclists at a “safe distance,” but don’t give a number specifying what that distance must be.

Only two states go beyond three feet with their passing requirements: Pennsylvania, which requires four feet of clearance for motorists wishing to pass cyclists; and South Dakota, which requires a three-foot buffer for roads with speed limits below 35 miles per hour and a six-foot buffer for roads with speed limits above 35 mph. Michigan’s five-foot law would have made the state one of the strictest in the country for safe bike passing distance.

Since LMB started advocating for a five-foot passing buffer, nine local Michigan communities – including Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, and Ann Arbor – have taken it upon themselves to adopt the rule. However, the chances of five feet becoming the statewide standard are now nil. At the beginning of March, Michigan’s safe passing bill passed out of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for review by the full House. However, it didn’t get out of committee without a language substitution that switched the distance requirement from five feet to three feet. 

According to John Lindenmayer of the LMB, the advocacy group is still supportive of the bill, even given the language change. While Lindemayer thinks that a wider berth would be better for cyclists – especially given that most people aren’t reliable judges of distance – he also thinks that a compromise might be the best way to get the bill passed.

“There was a lot of opposition to even putting a number [in the bill], on the House side,” Lindemayer said. “In the House Transportation Committee, this bill has been struggling for a year to get the attention that it deserves. It’s gone through a lot of proposed amendments, one of those being that they wanted to take away a number altogether and just have the language say you had to pass bicycles ‘safely.’ The ultimate compromise was on the number, and we can live with three feet.”

The LMB is still pushing for further compromises on the safe passing bill. The group got the House to add language allowing drivers to cross solid yellow lines to pass cyclists in No Passing zones — something Lindermayer considers an important triumph. On the other hand, there is still language in the bill that says drivers can shirk the three-foot rule if it isn’t “practicable.” The LMB will push for three feet to be the absolute minimum before the bill goes to the governor’s desk.

In addition to the safe passing bill, the LMB has also been working on a few other pieces of cycling legislation. Just recently, Governor Rick Snyder signed a new bill into law that reclassifies electric bikes as bicycles instead of mopeds. The prior classification required E-bike riders to have licensing and insurance, while the new one will eliminate those hurdles. The LMB is also pushing the legislature to clarify the definition of an “obstructed license plate,” to save cyclists with rear-mounted bike racks on their cars from getting pulled over and ticketed.

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