Saturday, April 26, 2014

Why League City needs a bicycle safe passing ordinance

Answer:  Because this type of ordinance provides new tools that empower the public to assert their rights in a way that would not otherwise be practically achievable, tools that are absent from the existing regulatory framework.
This gentleman, a public edu-activist whose creative methods appeal mightily to my own dash-camming heart, capitalized on Houston's new 3-foot passing ordinance by creating (drum roll, please) a 3 foot space on the traffic side of his bicycle.  This screengrab from his helmet cam shows a car entering his space, and the scary part is that he was in a dedicated bike lane when that happened.  It's not like he was sharing a shoulderless road with traffic such that they were squeezed into proximity.  Drivers in our area won't even give clearance to cyclists when they have their own lanes!  That's how bad things are here.

Video screengrab from this YouTube entry by the cyclist.   
The argument against adopting bike passing ordinances and laws (which also include provisions for giving adequate space to pedestrians, the handicapped, construction workers, and other non-motoring right-of-way users) is that we already have laws on the books which make it a crime to (duh) run over and kill or maim people and therefore, any additional laws would only add meaninglessly to our society's cumulative regulatory burden.  In Texas, Governor Perry vetoed the Safe Passing Act for this reason despite its overwhelming bipartisan support (it passed 25-5 in the Senate and 140-5 in the House).   
Sure, it's against the law, but that doesn't mean that people stop doing it:  Photo of a car after its driver rammed and killed a bicyclist.  Screengrab courtesy of this site.  
The superficial declaration "we need to enforce the regulations already on the books rather that create new ones" belies the nuances and complexity of some of our underlying social precedents.  Houston's safe passing law (PDF) furnished a quantitative performance standard that allowed Houstonian Dan Morgan to gain a great deal of positive publicity by documenting the extent to which the law (and common sense) were being routinely violated (e.g., this story and this story and this story).  His effort is particularly meaningful because it comes on the heels of numerous high-profile bicyclist deaths in Houston, deaths that have intensified public calls for a sea change in the way vulnerable road users are treated.  It's the kind of peaceful public protest that can effectively be built upon by others to eventually bring about positive change.
And of course it's not just in Houston that cyclists are being killed.  Just over a month ago, this story of a fatal hit-and-run riveted the attention of folks all across greater Houston in part because LCPD was so effective in using surveillance footage and social media to help track down the alleged guilty party.

Screengrab courtesy of KHOU.  
As near as I can determine, League City has no analogous safe passing law.
When I searched through Municode, which is the third-party repository for current ordinances, it mostly contains boilerplate reflecting the fact that bicycles must be operated in conformance with existing rules of the road.

Screengrabbed from Municode.  
That being the case, I too could stick a 3-foot flag on my beloved Gary Fisher hybrid mountain bike and ride around League City with it, but it wouldn't mean much because it would be a propos of no existing rule or precedent.  I, too, could bring video evidence of unsafe passing before City Council and/or the police department, but I'm not sure they'd be able to do anything about it even if they wanted to because we lack a concise enforcement framework.

I have a hunch that, some day, 3-foot traffic lane flags are going to be widely available commercially for bicycles and the expectation that they be honored by motorists will be standard.  Until that time, we can continue to push for additional culture-changing measures that help inch us in the direction of that better place.  Safe passing laws are one of the tools that provide us with additional concrete options in that regard.
I recently started rehabbing my scruffy old bike, which hasn't been on the road in years.  I stopped riding it because it was just too dangerous - I have a child, I have responsibilities in my life; I can't go getting myself killed by engaging in denial about the degree to which Texas lacks a protective road culture.

But it shouldn't be this hard.  I should be able to ride my bike to Walgreens this morning without risking my life.  

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