Bike-safety advocates pushing 2 bills in Maryland’s House getting a frosty reception

Two bills pushed by Maryland bike-safety advocates received a frosty reception in the Maryland House of Delegates on Tuesday, and one sponsor hinted that they are unlikely to emerge from committee.

One bill is intended to clarify laws that apply to bicyclists using public roads; the other would expand by a foot — to four feet — the distance drivers are required to keep from cyclists while overtaking and passing them. A third bill that would allow drivers to cross the double yellow line while passing bicyclists is scheduled for a hearing next week.

“I’m a little shellshocked that there are so many bike bills,” said Del. James E. Malone Jr. (D-Baltimore-Howard counties), who chaired the hearing before the House Environmental Matters Committee. “This year, it’s four feet, and next year it’s five feet, and before you know it, the cars are on the shoulders and the bikes are on the road.”

Malone said that many cyclists he observes “don’t pay any attention to the rules of the road.”

The first bill would make a minor change in a law that bicycling advocates consider significant. Current law says that a rider has all the rights and responsibilities that a driver has. The change would say that a cyclist has those rights and “only” the responsibilities that a driver has.

It’s a nuance, but the advocates explained that cyclists injured while obeying the law often find their insurance claims rejected because insurance companies apply a different standard of conduct to bicyclists than to drivers.

“We need a law that says the [Maryland] vehicles code is the standard,” said Shane Farthing of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, which he said has 17,000 Maryland members. “Under common law, there’s an expectation that the smaller thing gets out of the way of the bigger thing, just as a small boat might get out of the way of a larger vessel on the Chesapeake Bay.”

“In a nutshell,” said Del. Herb McMillan (R-Anne Arundel), “you want to overturn common law.”

After the hearing, the bill’s sponsor — Del. Alfred C. Carr Jr. (D-Montgomery) — was asked whether he thought the bill would be sent to the House floor. “You heard the comments of the subcommittee chair,” he responded, shaking his head.

Maryland is one of 21 states that require drivers to stay a minimum of three feet from cyclists when they pass, having passed a law in 2010. Del. Jon S. Cardin (D-Baltimore County) proposed expanding the distance to four feet, a step Pennsylvania took in 2012.

“Unfortunately, current passing requirements are often ignored,” Cardin said. “A recent study by Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future found that one in six motor vehicle passes in Baltimore, or about 17 percent, violated the current 3-foot law.”

The Maryland State Highway Administration, which has been working with bike-safety advocates on an education campaign, spoke out in opposition of the four-feet proposal Tuesday.

The three-feet law “is relatively new,” said Cedric Ward, director of the SHA safety office. “We think it’s premature to expand the bill.”

Cardin pointed to the death of five cyclists and more than 800 accidents in Maryland in 2012 as evidence that laws should be stiffened.

Del. Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Calvert-St. Mary’s) expressed sympathy for the death of two Anne Arundel County cyclists last year — Severn School teacher Thomas Patrick Heslin Jr., 57, and Annapolis High School coach Trish Cunningham, 50 — but said he doubted that the four-feet proposal would make a difference

“I don’t think it’s going to have any effect whatsoever on drivers’ behavior or cyclists’ behavior,” he said.

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Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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