Getting There: New bicycle law codifies common sense, courtesy

By now, just about every Marylander who hasn't been hiding under a rock since spring knows that it is now illegal to drive while chatting away on a hand-held cell phone. But that wasn't the only new rule of the road to take effect this month.

Advocates for bicyclists scored a big win this year when they persuaded the Maryland General Assembly to adopt a measure requiring drivers to leave a 3-foot buffer when passing a bicycle.

It's a law that's been in effect in other states for many years, so there's no reason Marylanders can't get used to it. Largely, it's a codification of common sense and simple courtesy.

But a reader wanted to know precisely what the law required — a question that steered me to Buel Young, spokesman for the Motor Vehicle Administration.

Specifically, the reader wanted to know what the driver is expected to do when coming up behind a bicycle on a narrow road with no shoulders and a double-yellow line in the middle. And what, he wanted to know, is expected of the bicyclist?

According to Young, the bicycle "has all the rights and responsibilities" of any other vehicle. One of those responsibilities, he said, is to avoid impeding traffic.

But what does that mean? It turns out there's a very precise answer.

Young says a vehicle is impeding traffic if it is forcing following vehicles to slow down to more than 15 mph under the speed limit. Anything less and the driver just has to wait his turn.

Let's say you're driving along a winding country road with a speed limit of 35 mph and you come upon a bicycle in the middle of your lane, pedaling at 15 mph. The law says the bicyclist has the responsibility to move aside and let you pass.

But let's say the speed limit on that country lane is 25 mph. As long as the bicyclist can keep up a pace of 10 mph or more, the bicyclist has the right to use the traffic lane and the driver has no legal recourse but to slow down and exercise patience until the bicyclist moves aside or the double yellow ends. Blaring the horn to prod the bicyclist to move aside is unsafe, illegal and downright rude.

Now let's say the bicyclist is in the wrong — blithely hogging the travel lane while slowing the motorist to 20 mph under the speed limit. In that case, the buffer rule does not apply. But drivers who would prefer not to spend their day explaining that to police after a collision should keep their distance anyway.

In real life, there are few traffic cops hiding in the bushes with equipment sensitive enough to tell whether a car passes a bicycle within 2 feet or 3 feet or whether a bicyclist is going 2 to 3 mph too slow.

Primarily, this new law is an educational tool. It's up to the people who use the roads, both those in motor vehicles and on bicycles, to make it work.

Technically, a driver is not permitted to cross the double yellow even a little unless directed by an officer. In reality, a brief, partial and crash-free straddling of that line to pass a bike wouldn't raise eyebrows.

Bicyclists, meanwhile, would be fools to apply the 15-mph rule too rigidly. Prudence dictates that you get out of the way of a faster and bigger vehicle as soon as it is safe to do so.

The new law is unlikely to generate many tickets except in cases where there is contact between the passing vehicle and a bike. Only then is there likely to be tangible proof the vehicle intruded on the buffer zone. In those cases, the new rule could fill in a gap in the law between charging a driver with an intentional assault and letting the motorist off scot-free.

Another new law specifies that motor vehicles must yield to bicyclists using a bicycle lane or shoulder when making a turn. Turning right in front of a bike is an all-too-common driver error — known to highway safety pros as a "right hook" — that can have fatal consequences for those on two wheels. (Prudent bicyclists will slow down when approaching an intersection and not rely too heavily on this law.)

That law also eliminates a requirement that bicyclists remain on the shoulder when one is present. It's a sensible change because shoulders are often blocked by obstructions such as trash, glass and broken tree limbs. In such cases, the bicyclist is permitted to move into the travel lanes.

Whether that's necessary is a judgment call, but the new law leaves that decision to the bicyclist — not the driver. That might not please some motorists, but it's the bicyclist who has the better vantage point to judge the condition of the shoulder.

Those of us behind the wheel can only hope that bicyclists use this discretion wisely.

Wrong to razz

In last Monday's column I delivered a razzberry to the Maryland Department of Transportation for making the draft of its Comprehensive Transportation Program for 2011-2016 difficult to find on its website.

Department spokesman Jack Cahalan pointed out that the CTP can be downloaded by clicking a tab placed prominently at the top of the home page. Obviously the department was hiding it in plain sight. I can only plead advancing age and deteriorating eyesight.

Razzberry withdrawn — or rather, redirected at myself.

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