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State legislators look to create bicycle safe passing law as E.L. seeks own ordinance

March 2, 2017
Locked bikes on March 1, 2017 at Erickson Hall.
Locked bikes on March 1, 2017 at Erickson Hall. —

The League of Michigan Bicyclists, or LMB, will have another shot at implementing a five-foot bicycle safe passing bill after a prior attempt did not pass in the last legislative session, as new bills have been reintroduced in the Michigan House and Senate. 

The 5-Foot safe passing bill, SB 0123, was introduced by Sen. David Knezek (D-Dearborn Heights) and Sen. Margaret O’Brien (R-Kalamazoo), who sponsored the bills last session. A House version of the bill, HB 4185, was also introduced. 

LMB’s Executive Director John Lindenmayer spoke of the broad public support of this legislation, citing thousands of communications reaching leadership offices and the bipartisan support they saw last year. 

The bills were passed in the Senate almost unanimously and went to the Transportation Committee. However, the chair of the committee was killed in a motorcycle crash last fall and the bill ultimately failed to reach the Gov. Snyder’s desk before the end of the year. 

Now introduced in a two-year session, time is on their side.

Lindenmayer said these bills are a step in the right direction, but improvements need to continue being made to infrastructure and the way roads are designed and maintained, with a “complete streets” approach to how roadways are built so that cyclists, pedestrians, drivers and transit users are all provided safe opportunities to traverse their communities.

“It’s not a single fix,” Lindenmayer said, advocating for more with education for cyclists and drivers and stricter enforcement of road laws.

Bills seeking to introduce new safe passing content for drivers education were also introduced to the House and Senate.

"‘Complete streets’ are taking off, so our roadways are looking different year after year,” Lindenmayer said. “It’s more relevant than ever that we’re talking to young drivers about how to interact on the road.”

Yet this leaves a large portion of drivers who still need to be reached, so LMB is working to create online safety programs that can be used by anyone to walk users through common crash scenarios and how to avoid them to fill the educational gap existing drivers have.

According to a study, East Lansing has low bike collision rates despite its large number of cyclists. Even so, MSU police made good on its commitment to bike safety by creating a Move Safe campaign to inform students of bike laws and safety practices. 

ASMSU Vice President for Governmental Affairs Alex Noffsinger is working to get East Lansing its own Safe Passing law. At this point, most of the work has been more research-focused, but the ordinance would mirror the state bills, seeking the same five-foot passing law for the city.

Noffsinger said the idea is if enough cities can get ordinances passed first, the state will recognize it as common-sense legislation. For now, Michigan cities are ahead of state legislature.

A resolution will be addressed Thursday at the General Assembly, and Noffsinger said he is optimistic that most members will be supportive of it.

If ASMSU passes a resolution, the next step would be to form a partnership with Lansing’s Tri-County Bicycle Association. The organization's Advocacy Committee chair Mike Unsworth has already been working with ASMSU.

This partnership would then reach out to East Lansing’s Transportation Commission chair John Swords and vice chair Rory Neuner.

If the Transportation Commission can pass an ordinance, it would then pass up to City Council.

“It’ll take time, as everything does,” Noffsinger said. “I’m cautiously optimistic about the timeline, but I’m very optimistic about it getting passed.”

Tim Potter is the manager of MSU Bikes Service Center, where he sees high demand for used bikes in East Lansing, and he said he believes bikes are an integral part of campus.

Potter is also part of the Tri-County Bicycle Association’s regional initiative to get local communities, villages and townships to adopt Safe Passing laws.

Because Michigan cities are taking the lead on Safe Passing laws, Potter said he believes the state will have to adopt something to create uniformity across Michigan to reduce confusion and not force cyclists to choose which cities to avoid.

“That ambiguity is the problem with our current law,” Potter said.

Unsworth is working to get five-foot Safe Passing ordinances Clinton, Eaton and Ingham counties. 

Another ordinance the Tri-County Bicycle Association is crafting would allow motorists to cross double-yellow center lanes, if there is no oncoming traffic, in order to safely pass a

“The reason we're doing this is because the state hasn’t done it,” Unsworth said. “Which means it's going to be harder.”ch

According to Michigan law, a bicycle has the same rights as any motor vehicle, and is permitted on most roadways other than limited access highways. 

“Our bicyclists aren’t really protected under the law, because a motor vehicle, according to state law, is not passing a vehicle, it’s passing a bicycle,” Unsworth said. “So we think it needs to be spelled out.”ch

The problem, Unsworth said, is a lot of drivers don’t know how to judge the distances between their vehicle and a cyclist, especially big vehicles like trucks, vans and SUVs. ch

Vehicles also create turbulence when they pass a cyclist and with Michigan’s roads in poor condition and curbs' edges eroded, cyclists cannot always be as far to the right as they need to

“If you have a lot of potholes along the shoulder, or if the shoulder is crumbling and it’s extending into the roadway, (vehicles need) to get over,” Unsworth said. “But a lot of motorists don’t think that way.”

Educating new drivers to keep a five-foot distance, Unsworth said, would prompt them to do so and reduce injuries.

To help inform current motorists, the Tri-County Bicycle Association will consider implementing new road signs, as well as using social media, billboards and TV and radio broadcasting with WKAR.

According to state law, it is not illegal to ride a bicycle on a sidewalk, except where prohibited. 

Unsworth said many students are probably taught by their parents that it’s most dangerous to ride bikes on the street, yet sidewalks are the most the dangerous places to ride.

“MSU, in its wisdom, set up a campus ordinance that bikes cannot be on sidewalks,” Unsworth said.

The campus is putting in bike lights indicating where cyclists are meant to ride.

“We have built up on campus a lot of pathways, which are not parallel to roads, and you can ride on them,” Unsworth said. “It’s not even followed by the bike cops.”MSU assistant professor of sociology Stephen Gasteyer said for a campus of MSU's size the bicycle is an important way to get around.

Gasteyer is a cyclist himself, freed from having to walk his miles-long daily route. Not only does biking cut his use of fossil fuels, he said, but there’s no need to pay for a parking pass either.

“The bike becomes a useful tool on campus,” Gasteyer said. “It would be great if we could maintain the systems we have and improve them.”

He said he doesn’t believe MSU has been as consistent as it should be with bike lanes and sees the advantages of a five-foot passing law. Yet Gasteyer is concerned that a reaction to stricter vehicle laws might result in municipalities taking away bike lines.

“I know that we’ve had some terrible accidents in Lansing since I've arrived and lost some very good people as a result from drivers not paying attention to a car,” Gasteyer said. “There’s not enough awareness about how to drive a car around by bikes.”

Gasteyer said he believes ramps should be implanted to connect roads to sidewalks where where bike lanes disappear, citing where Farm Lane meets Shaw Lane. 

“You find yourself in the middle of traffic without a real space to bike,” Gasteyer said. “That’s my big complaint. Otherwise, I think it’s fine.”

MSU alumna and Main Library employee Laura Carter commutes on her bike every day, even through the winter.

Carter is a big believer in wearing helmets, and said she doesn’t see anyone wearing theirs. Last August, Carter wiped out on her bicycle during one the rare times she didn’t wear her helmet, and although she wasn’t seriously injured she remembers the pain suffered to her head.

Carter had seen someone attach a pool noodle to their bike to prevent cars from getting closer than they should.

Carter usually doesn’t ride her bike on the road, she said, even though she knows she has the right to.

“If there’s a bike lane, I will, but if not I will go on the sidewalk because I just don’t trust them,” Carter said, and even if drivers think a five-foot passing law is a good idea, “they’re looking at texts, and they’re veering this way, and the next thing you know, you’re smashed. I’m very in favor of the idea, but I don’t think people are going to pay any attention to it, sadly.”

MSU business freshman Megan Schmidt rides the same Schwinn Bicycle she had as a kid, but it’s beginning to fail mechanically, so she plans on taking her mom’s bike from home.

“I'm usually fine,” Schmidt said, feeling safe when riding around campus. 

Her thoughts on the five-foot passing law: “As long as I’m not getting hit by a car.”

MSU mechanical engineering sophomore Jay Wideman rides his bike to reach his classes on north campus.

“Normally if there’s a bike path on the road I don’t feel threatened or harmed at all, because most cars give me left distance,” Wideman said. “But sometimes when there’s not enough bike path, like when you go more off campus on sidewalks or roads, that’s when sometimes I feel like I get a little close to cars.”

Last year, Wideman was actually hit, and pointed to scrapes on his bicycle.

“I got a couple of scars,” Wideman said. “Some guy ran through a stop sign. But that’s not part of the five-foot plan, that’s just somebody not following the rules.”

Wideman wasn’t wearing a helmet at the time, and still doesn’t. 

“I was fine, just a little scraped up,” he said. “I always make eye contact and if ever come to tie with a car, I just let them win because they’re a two-ton steel ball where I’m just on my bike, so I’m going to lose that battle every time.”

Wideman doesn’t feel that a five-foot passing law would necessarily be followed, and thinks hefty fines and police are needed to enforce it.

“Just with how teenagers and college students are, they might be more aware but they’re not going to officially follow any rule like that," Wideman said.


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