November 26, 2014

Bicycle safety debated again in the legislature

Iowa motorists caught driving too closely to bicyclists — or throwing things at them — could face big fines and possibly lose their driver’s license temporarily under legislation pending at the statehouse. Bicycle enthusiasts are pressing for new protections after an increasing number of fatalities involving bicyclists, but opponents argue cyclists themselves are sometimes to blame and any new law would be hard to enforce.

Representative Sharon Steckman, a Democrat from Mason City, has been working to find a compromise on the issue. “Iowa is a bicycle-friendly state,” she says. ” We have the largest organized ride in the country that I know of — RAGBRAI. It’s huge and it encourages good, healthy living and I think this is really a modest start in what we need to do to let people know that bicycles do have a right to be on the road.”

A so-called “Bicyclists Bill of Rights” passed the Iowa Senate in February of last year, but never passed the House. The bill requires that vehicles maintain a five-foot distance when passing a bicyclist. But Representative Clel Baudler, a Republican from Greenfield, says that’s not always possible on narrow county blacktops.

“Is a vehicle passing a bicycle five feet away too close? If I was on the bicycle I would say, ‘Yes, it’s too close,'” Baudler says. “If I’m in the car or the motor vehicle, I can’t go over any farther without going off the road because some of these county blacktops have a shoulder of maybe 18 inches — if it’s not a drop-off.”

Baudler, who is a retired state trooper, says if the legislature really wants to save lives, the bill should require cyclists to wear reflective clothing. “(With) deer hunting in Iowa, we had fatalities, we had injuries. When the legislature required ‘hunter orange’ from the waist up basically, our fatalities (and) our injuries plummeted,” Baulder says.

“So I suggest that these bicyclists have to be readily identified i.e. fifty percent of their jersey would have to be hunter orange or school bus yellow.” Bicycle safety advocates say there have been 27 fatal accidents in Iowa over the past four years.

The bill establishes a $250 fine for some of the car versus bicycle infractions. Critics like Baudler says that’s too high when the fine for running a stoplight, for example, is only 35 dollars. Elizabeth Baird of the Iowa Department of Transportation says legislators have set penalties for certain kinds of infractions higher, to send a message.

“One area several years ago…a $1,000 maximum fine for speeding in a work zone. There have been increased fines for passing a school bus,” Baird says. “So there’s a number of places in (state law) where (the legislature) has gone outside to make a specific statement. We agree this is a place to make that statement.”

 Under the proposed legislation, if a cyclist is seriously injured because of unsafe passing or tailgating, the motorist would face a five-hundred dollar fine and a 90-day license suspension. If the cyclist is killed, the driver would face a $1,000  fine and 180 day suspension. Jim Obradovich, a lobbyist for the Iowa bicycle coalition, is urging lawmakers not to get hung up on the numbers.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s $200, $500, $1000 — that’s not going to bring back any those bicyclists who were killed on our roads,” Obradovich says. “What we do need is some sort of deterrent, some sort of strong message out of this building across the countryside to be more vigilant, to share the road and that’s what’s really important. That’s why we support this.”

 A Bicyclist’s Bill of Rights passed the Iowa Senate last year on a 30 to 17 vote. The bill would have given bicyclists the right-of-way when a bike trail intersects with a street. It also would have penalized those found guilty of opening a car door into oncoming bicycle traffic and causing an accident.