by the Ohio Bicycle Federation
The Problem --
Our government is spending millions to find a pollution-free vehicle. But we already have such a vehicle, the bicycle. So governments everywhere treat cyclists fairly, right? We get equal protection under the law, right? Well, lets see ....
Motor vehicle traffic laws are generally uniform throughout the 50 states. A driver traveling from state to state need not learn a new set of laws with each border crossing. Likewise, within each state, local authorities have only limited powers to enact local ordinances. The basic set of the "rules of the road" is consistent throughout the country.
Unfortunately, uniformity does not exist for bicycle traffic laws. Part of the reason for the confusion is the misguided attitude that bicycles are toys for children, rather than vehicles used by adults. However, a significant reason is that the people who make the rules are not cyclists; they do not know how to operate a bicycle properly.
Governments at the state and local level sometimes treat cyclists as incompetent children or as third-class citizens. Some forbid cycling on roadways, but instead direct cyclists to use more dangerous facilities such as sidewalks and pathways beside the road. Some bicycle laws confine cyclists to the edge of the road, even where the edge may not be a safe place to ride. Local ordinances form a crazy-quilt of conflicting rules that vary from community to community.
Improving these ordinances may protect communities from liability for accidents where their current laws mandate practices known to be dangerous. The safest way to operate a bicycle is as the lawful driver of a vehicle. This means riding on the roadway and following the same traffic rules as other drivers. Cyclists who operate this way have one-fifth the accident rate of the average.
Local Ordinances --
Ohio Bicycle Federation board member Fred Oswald has undertaken a survey of local cycling traffic ordinances in NE Ohio and proposed a Model Municipal Bicycle Code. The survey includes ratings on a scale of A to F. Of 60 communities examined so far, the best rating is C+. About half of the communities specify one or more dangerous practices (thus earning D or F ratings). A few communities have more than one provision that deserves a failing score, so their grade becomes F-. The survey provides compelling evidence that uniform laws are badly needed.
Since the survey project began in 1999, two communities have revised their ordinances. One improved from D to C, the other from F- to C+ (among the worst to the best). As this was written, a third community was reviewing their cycling ordinances.
Changes such as we propose take time and tenacity to accomplish. It usually takes three readings in order to change a local ordinance. But before changes will even be considered, we must establish credibility to convince local authorities to believe us. You can download an educational presentation Introduction for a BikeEd class. With minor modifications, such as customized local information, this could serve to educate local officials.
Reforming laws one community at a time is not an effective strategy. Cyclists need fair and uniform traffic laws, just as much as motorists do. We need a national advocacy organization to support reforms of the cycling laws in all 50 states. Lawmakers at all levels must know that bicycles are vehicles that should be operated under the same rules as other vehicles. We must make officials realize that present laws represent a failure of their responsibility to their citizens.
Working on the Solution --
The Ohio Bicycle Federation persuaded the Ohio Dept. of Public Safety to issue a bicycle drivers' manual, following the example of Pennsylvania. The manual is called Ohio Bicycling Street Smarts, and it includes John Allen's booklet Bicycling Street Smarts. Because the booklet was issued by a state agency, it defines official Ohio policy regarding cycling practices. Thus it helps interpret state law in a positive manner, mitigating the harm from some bad bicycle traffic laws.
The Ohio Bicycle Federation successfully advocated important reforms of state cycling laws in 2006. These included two priority issues plus several other changes. The priority issues address (1) the "far right rule", which says cyclists shall ride as near to the right side of the roadway as practicable ...(with no exceptions) and (2) dangerous and discriminatory local ordinances that conflict with the standard rules of the road. You can read the proposed Ohio Bicycle Law Reforms. We also put the reforms in Booklet format for state legislators. We invite cycling activists from other states to use these as examples to improve their own laws.
OBF Chair Chuck Smith has served on the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Laws and Ordinances, the organization that maintains the Uniform Vehicle Code. Chuck, working with LAB representative Riley Geary was able to get several reforms in the UVC, including a statement about the purpose of the "slow vehicle rule", §11-301(c): "The intent of this subsection is to facilitate the overtaking of slowly moving vehicles by faster moving vehicles." However, more improvement is needed in the UVC and especially in state laws.
A small committee has been developing Model Bicycle Traffic Laws and has begun rating the cycling laws in the 50 states. This work will be a significant help to state cycling organizations when they seek reforms in their own states. For a discussion of the issues affecting traffic law, see A Guide to Improving U.S. Traffic Laws Pertaining to Bicycling by Paul Schimek.
Enforcement and Education --
We also need to train police so they enforce laws properly and fairly. An educated officer is the cyclist's friend. But unfortunately, harassment by misinformed officers is much too common, such as the The Steve Selz Case in Ohio. Selz was cited because an untrained officer thought he was riding dangerously because he was on a major street.
Ultimately, the problems of bad laws and improper enforcement are caused by miseducation in our society on matters related to the bicycle. The cure requires educating society about cycling. We need to develop training programs at all levels, from public service announcements in the media, to real cycling education in schools and youth groups, to cycling questions on driver's license exams and "op-ed" articles in the paper.
What are you doing about this problem in your area? Contact us through www.ohiobike.org to help with this effort.
Ohio Bicycle Federation, 19 Oct 02, minor update 16 Sep 07