Who Taught You to Drive?
Passed a couple of bicyclists the other day who were pedaling side-by-side on the street — a no-no according to my last article on biking laws. ‘‘They should be riding single file,’’ I preached to my passenger.
Well, even driving columnists sometimes have to eat their words. With the passage of the state’s new bicycle safety bill, riders can indeed travel two abreast down the street. And drivers can get a $100 ticket for failing to move over for them. (Clarification below)
The law, which took effect in April, includes several other fines for motorists whose actions put bikers in danger. It also evens the playing field, allowing officers to issue standard tickets to bicyclists who foolishly run red lights or zip the wrong way down streets.
Trouble is, hardly anyone knows about the new rules. The Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group that fought eight years for the passage of the safety bill, won’t be launching a publicity campaign until late summer. Most police departments remain relatively unaware of the new bicycling code, and it appears just a handful are enforcing it. The state Registry of Motor Vehicles hasn’t made a big announcement, either, though it is promoting the new law through bicycle education classes and various notices.
Part of the problem is that the safety bill’s passage was a bit of a surprise to everyone. It had been rejected three times previously, so when it actually won approval on Beacon Hill in January, ‘‘It caught us a little bit off guard,’’ said David Watson, MassBike’s executive director.
It’s taken his group this long to put together training materials for police departments and to build a soon-to-be-launched website for the public, he said.
The other big sticking point is that police can’t begin ticketing bicyclists for moving violations until the Registry updates its computer system to keep track of the citations, and that’s not expected to happen until 2011 because of the complexities involved, said agency spokeswoman Ann Dufresne.
Lastly, the law gives plenty of discretion to local police departments in terms of educating officers about the changes. Due to lack of funds, or lack of interest, that education doesn’t appear to be happening, though the law will be taught to new recruits at municipal police academies starting this month.
That said, at some point — be it now, next summer, or 2011 — Massachusetts drivers and bicyclists alike will need to start following the new law. Cambridge was the only city I found that is actively enforcing it, so I asked Lieutenant Jack Albert, head of its Police Department’s traffic division, for a quick primer.
As its name implies, the bicycle safety bill was passed primarily to protect cyclists against their aggressive motoring brethren, Albert said. No matter where you drive in the state, you should be obeying certain provisions of the law right now.
For instance, it’s now illegal to open your car door into a bicycle lane with a biker approaching ($35 fine). If you’re on a one-lane road, you cannot squeeze a bicyclist to the curb while passing ($100 fine). Instead, you must wait until you can pass with a safe amount of separation, crossing a double yellow line if need be.
You can also be fined for making an abrupt right turn and cutting off a bicyclist (in bike parlance, a ‘‘right hook’’); for zipping in front of a bicyclist after passing him; and for failing to yield to a bicyclist as you would an approaching motor vehicle when making a left turn.
‘‘Even if a car stops and allows you to make the turn, if there’s a bicyclist oncoming, you have to stop for him, whether he’s in a bicycle lane or not,’’ Albert said.
The new laws aren’t exactly revolutionary. Drivers have never had the right to cut off bicyclists or push them to the curb, according to Massachusetts General Laws. But, well, it happens, and probably too often, so some legal reinforcement was deemed necessary.
‘‘There’s a lack of respect for bicyclists,’’ said Georgetown Police Chief James Mulligan, a cyclist himself. ‘‘Occasionally I’ll go on the sidewalk because the roads are so narrow, it scares you. You can actually get hit.’’
The other half of the law, the part that allows police to ticket bicyclists, isn’t exactly new, either. Until now, though, police could only issue municipal citations based on local bylaws or ordinances, a hassle few bothered with. Starting in 2011, police across the state will be able to use the same tickets for bicyclists as they do for motorists, copies of which will be sent to the Registry.
Some of the law is bound to be a work in progress, officials said. For instance, it’s unclear whether the ticket you get for riding your bike through a red light will appear on your motor vehicle driving record, or affect your car insurance rates.
Albert said he likes the changes except for the new rule that allows bikers to ride side-by-side. ‘‘In 5 p.m. rush-hour traffic that’s not going to work,’’ he said.
Still, even with its bumpy implementation, the law eventually should create safer roadways for cyclists statewide, Watson said.
‘‘The motorist should always make the choice to protect the bicyclist’s safety,’’ Watson said. ‘‘But bicyclists also endanger themselves — you see people running red lights, for instance. That’s something that we would like to see changed. If people want to peacefully coexist, then everybody needs to act in a predictable manner.’’
Clarification: Last week’s “Who taught YOU to drive?” column about the state’s new bicyclist safety law should have said that while bikers can ride side by side in most cases, they still can not “unnecessarily obstruct” a motorist waiting to pass. An example of this could be when two bikers are riding side by side on a narrow road that lacks an additional passing lane. The statute also says that moving violations issued to bicyclists can not affect their car insurance rates. For more on the law, see Massbike.org.
Peter DeMarco writes about drivers and highways throughout Greater Boston. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For updates, you can follow "Who taught you to drive?" on Facebook.
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