New bike law takes effect in Md.

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 30, 2010; 10:58 PM

Decades after the first "share the road" signs popped up, Maryland drivers could be fined as much as $500 if they pass within three feet of a bicyclist.

The law, which takes effect Friday, sets out to better define the rules for drivers and riders on the increasingly crowded roads, where close encounters, crashes and fatalities have become a reality of the dance between cars and bicycles.

Nationally, 630 cyclists died and 51,000 were injured in collisions with cars last year. Eleven bike riders died on Maryland roads last year, an increase over 2008, as more recreational riders and cycling commuters are encouraged by new bike lanes and increasingly frustrating automobile commutes.

Cyclists who ride regularly in Maryland said their dangerous encounters are caused by two types of drivers: those who are distracted and don't see them, and those who are angry and aggressive. Eli Hengst, a D.C. resident who often rides in Maryland, says it's not hard to tell who's who.

"It's actually pretty easy: The distracted drivers don't look back. They just keep on talking on their cellphone, swerving down the road," Hengst said. "The intentional acts are almost always accompanied by a middle finger, yelling of profanities as they drive by, honking of the horn or extreme quick jerks in a rider's direction as they try to ride you off the road."

Hengst said he experiences the unintended incidents almost daily and the angry encounters about twice a week.

Although the new law is intended to protect cyclists, it does mandate that they handle their bikes responsibly. They are required to maintain a steady course, stay to the right and use a bike lane, if there is one, or the shoulder, if it is smoothly paved.

Drivers who are about to enter or cross a designated bike lane or the shoulder are required to yield to cyclists.

The law might be a challenge for police to enforce, and the majority of the citations might be issued when a driver who violates the three-foot buffer causes an accident.

"I hope the new law will raise awareness - that is the key," said Jodi Grant, who bikes to work from her home in Bethesda to an office near the White House. "And if there are visible [crackdowns] maybe drivers will think twice. If drivers and bikers begin reporting those who violate the law and there are consequences, then it can have an impact."

Mark Smith said Annapolis police tracked down and gave a warning to a driver after this incident:

"On a narrow one-way city street in Annapolis a pickup truck driver put the 'squeeze play' on me and tagged me with his protruding truck mirrors," Smith recalled. "The mirror hit me in the left shoulder . . . but I was able to stay upright. Upon realizing what the truck driver did, he sped away and ran a red light to get away from the scene. I actually caught up to him several minutes later at a stoplight, and he would not make eye contact. I motioned for him to pull over, and he flipped me the bird and sped off, albeit not before I wrote down his tag number and reported him."

Grant, a 42-year-old mother of two, said she gets passed by an aggressive driver at least twice a week.

"By aggressive, I mean someone intentionally getting well within three feet of me and increasing their speed as they pass. Sometimes this is accompanied by cursing and/or a loud horn," she said. "To be fair, the vast majority of the drivers are extremely cautious and respectful."

Matt Tebo of Kensington related an incident on Beach Drive last fall.

"A driver buzzed [close to] me, stopped suddenly right in front of me, and I wound up smashing my head on his rear windshield," Tebo said. "He drove away with me on his trunk!

"Perhaps if the three-foot rule were in place then, they could have gotten the guy, but I'm skeptical," Tebo said. "I had the plate number, but the car had a D.C. plate and the incident occurred in Montgomery County in a federal park. I wonder how the new law would handle a situation like that? The Montgomery County cop told me they couldn't do anything."

David G. Tambeaux said he and his cycling friends in Howard County are victimized by chronic offenders.

"We have been regularly buzzed lately by a guy in a dark-blue VW Jetta who, oddly enough, has bicycle roof and rear-attached bicycle racks," Tambeaux said. "The last time was two weeks ago, when he passed us going approximately 50-plus mph in a 35 mph zone, giving about 15 inches room."

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