When Kevin Witkos proposed legislation to require bicyclists to ride single file on Connecticut roads, he never expected it would land him in the middle of a firestorm.
"I got taken to the woodshed," he now says a little ruefully. "I didn't realize such a simple bill would get people's ire up so much."
Witkos is a Republican state senator from Canton and a former cop. He got an earful from cycling advocates before and during a General Assembly hearing last week. "They told me, 'You don't understand cycling,'" he says.
Another state senator named Beth Bye does, and she's not at all happy with the Witkos bill to prohibit bikers from riding side by side.
Bye lives in West Hartford and rides her bike to the legislature almost every day. She says the proposed single-file requirement for bicyclists is completely unnecessary and she thinks she knows where it's coming from.
Last year, Bye and others proposed a "vulnerable users" bill to provide more protection for bikers, pedestrians, skateboarders, road maintenance workers and other non-automobile folks. The idea was to hit crazy drivers who injure or kill one of those "vulnerable users" with fines of up to $1,000 and mandatory retraining in the operation of a motor vehicle, plus community service.
Supporters of Bye's bill argue that, all too often, drivers who hit pedestrians or bikers get off from virtually any penalty by insisting it wasn't their fault. Bye's legislation won approval in the state Senate in 2012 but got lost in the shuffle and died without a vote in the House. So Bye's proposing it again, and she thinks that's ticking off some anti-biker types.
She says the idea of cracking down on bikers riding side-by-side has "in the past been a reaction to the vulnerable users bill... People say, 'You want cars to be more careful, well, bikes need to be more careful too.'"
And Bye admits that, just as there are inconsiderate motorists, "There are bicyclists who aren't considerate of the rules of the road."
The trouble with Witkos' bill, says Bye, is that Connecticut law already requires bikers to give motorists a chance to pass them safely.
Witkos has a different justification for the bill. He points to a biker safety bill passed a couple of years ago that requires motorists to allow at least three feet of space when passing a bicycle.
According to Witkos, he got the idea of the single-file biking bill from a policeman who argued that the three-foot passing rule could force cars to swing out into the oncoming traffic lane if they had to go around bikers riding side-by-side.
What he hadn't counted on was the angry reaction from cycling activists, and the counter reaction from anti-biker motorists.
"People that do [ride bikes] are passionate about it," says Witkos, "and people who don't do it can be just as passionate... They will say, 'I hate bicyclists!'"
(State transportation officials, by the way, are officially "neutral" on both biking-related bills. Must figure this is one issue where it pays to keep your head down and out of the line of fire.)
Cycling advocates argue that riding side-by-side is fine on back roads when there's no traffic; that most cyclists already go single-file when they know cars are going to pass; and that Connecticut law already forbids bicyclists from obstructing the "normal flow of traffic."
Bye explains that riding beside each other "is part of the social side of riding bikes … It's really nice sometimes to be social."
She says riding side-by-side isn't really an issue on heavily trafficked urban and suburban roadways where there's often not much room even for a single biker.
The complaints from motorists, according to Bye, mostly come from people in rural areas where biking clubs do organized rides in large packs of 10 or 20 cyclists.
"Sometimes packs of riders are not listening for cars, are not getting out of the way of cars," she admits, and that leads to conflicts and more motorist irritation. "But current law says they need to," she adds.
Witkos thinks Connecticut's law is too vague and he believes we should adopt legislation similar to what they have in New York.
That state's statute specifies that "bicyclists can ride two abreast except when being overtaken by motor vehicles, and then they have to ride single file," Witkos explains.
Witkos admits this whole single-file cycling thing doesn't strike him as a huge issue. He says he never, in his 28 years as a cop enforcing traffic laws, ever gave a ticket to a cyclist.
He thinks a big part of the trouble is that far too many people don't understand the laws governing bikers and cars. Motorists may not know that bikers have a right to ride on the roads, cyclists may not know they have a responsibility to respect the rights of car drivers, and even police "may not be aware of what the law is," Witkos adds.
And he's still shaking his head about how upset lots of people are about this whole thing.
"I'm not trying to restrict or take anybody's rights away," he insists.
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