Against MA H.408

By | October 31, 2011
Dear Representative Brownsberger,

I write in opposition to H.408, “legislation to establish civil or criminal penalties for motorists failing to yield to bicyclists,” which you sponsored.

Bicyclists are legally prohibited from riding in crosswalks. To use the crosswalk, a bicyclist is legally required to dismount from his bicycle and walk it, thus making him a pedestrian and therefore protected by the existing law. If he does not dismount, he is legally required to operate his bicycle as a vehicle, which means (among other things) staying out of the crosswalk.

Bicyclists riding in crosswalks are dangerous both to pedestrians and other vehicles on the road. It is both unnecessary and unreasonable to enshrine into law protections which would encourage bicyclists to violate other laws and operate their vehicles dangerously.

Drivers can already be cited for driving unsafely; there is no need for a new law protecting bicyclists in this particular context. This is especially true since the law would create a presumption that the driver of a car that strikes a bicycle in a crosswalk was at fault, when in fact it is just as likely, if not more so, that the bicyclist was at fault for darting into the crosswalk too fast for the driver to stop in time.

I speak from the point of view of someone who regularly walks, bikes, and drives in Boston; someone who strives to adhere to the law in all of those contexts; and someone who resents the many bicyclists who do not.

Sincerely,

Jonathan Kamens

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9 thoughts on “Against MA H.408

  1. Aaron Mason

    As a former cyclist, I see far too many cyclists riding erratically, often without helmets. It pains me whenever my wife or mother-in-law says “bloody cyclists” because I was one once, and I was never that erratic – I signalled when I went to turn (almost got me killed once by some idiot who ignored my signal and went to go around me as I was turning), I didn’t dart across roads and I certainly didn’t ride on sidewalks. I got cut off, abused, and yelled at by drivers who should know better, not to mention attacked by magpies during their breeding season (but that’s part and parcel of the Aussie spring – 8 weeks a year out of 52).

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  2. Pete Stidman

    The intent of this law is to address a need arising from cyclists who have been seriously injured at crossings along bike paths, but are then told in court that the driver who plowed over them in a crosswalk is not at fault because the cyclist did not dismount.

    In practice, no cyclist dismounts when crossing a street along the SW Corridor, the Minuteman path or other greenways, so the law does not adequately address what’s happening in the real world. People are getting seriously hurt, and irresponsible drivers are getting off free.

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    1. jik Post author

      The law as written doesn’t distinguish between “crossings along bike paths” and crosswalks. The two are very different and should be treated differently, but the law treats them the same.

      Crossings along bike paths aren’t really crosswalks, they’re bike crossings. They should be marked differently, signed differently, signaled differently, and legislated differently. If this wasn’t thought through properly before building all the bike paths that have sprung up around the state, then it should be thought through now and fixed properly now, not fixed with a too-broad law which addresses a symptom of the problem rather than the root cause.

      If they crossings are currently marked as crosswalks, then bicyclists are legally required to dismount when crossing them. That may be stupid given how the bike paths are supposed to be used, but that’s the law. Changing one law to accommodate the fact that bicyclists are regularly violating another law is not the right direction to go.

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  3. E.T.

    This is awful! I had a cyclist zoom into a crosswalk in front of me (against a red light) a few months ago while I was turning from Commonwealth onto Babcock (at a green light), and although I instantly hit the brake, I tapped her with my bumper and she fell down. Fortunately (a) she wasn’t hurt and neither her bike nor my car was damaged, (b) all witnesses agreed it was her fault, and (c) she told the responding officer that it was her fault. But if I had been less alert, or if any other circumstance had been different, the outcome could have been very different, and I would have been legally at fault. And a few months prior a biker ran into me and shattered my passenger window while I was making a turn, and the responding officer put me down as at fault because (he said when I asked) “in any collision between a vehicle and a pedestrian, the vehicle is at fault.” The law is already so slanted toward bikers, even though at least half of them disobey the laws and don’t wear helmets (I was counting for a while). Please do keep us posted if you hear anything further about this.

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    1. JonT

      @E.T. I agree with you that the proposal would be a bad law, and might encourage the kind of bad behavior you saw with the cyclist who rode in the crosswalk.

      Regarding the second collision you mention, with the cyclist who hit your window, that sounds like a classic Right Hook collision. You didn’t give enough information to determine who was really at fault there, but the cop may have been right for the wrong reason. Cyclists definitely are NOT pedestrians. However, Mass. General Law Chapter 90 section 14 says: “No person operating a vehicle that overtakes and passes a bicyclist proceeding in the same direction shall make a right turn at an intersection or driveway unless the turn can be made at a safe distance from the bicyclist at a speed that is reasonable and proper.” So if you passed the cyclist first, and then he hit you while you were making a right turn shortly afterwards, you could indeed be at fault according to the law.

      I’m not sure why you mentioned helmets. Helmets are a good idea, but they’re not the law (except for cyclists less than 16 years old). A helmet won’t prevent a collision (though in many circumstances it might save your life).

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      1. E.T.

        Actually I was making a left turn (sorry I didn’t specify). I checked for cross traffic before starting my turn, and while I was in mid-turn the cyclist came zooming down the street and smashed into my window.

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  4. jik Post author

    I got a personal response back this morning from the sponsor of the bill, Rep. Will Brownsberger. He says it’s primarily intended for bicycle-path crossings.
    I wrote back to him and pointed out that bicycle-path crossings are not actually crosswalks, and they should be marked and signed differently, and the popular ones should have traffic signals and wire loop actuators in the paths to allow bicycles to cross safely with a green light.
    The safety issue isn’t a deficiency in the law; it’s towns, cities and the state cheaping out when building the crossings. Although maybe there should be a law regulating how the crossings are built and marked, just as there are so many other laws regulating the construction and signage of public roadways.

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    1. jik Post author

      Brownsberger also told me, “You can be sure that the bill will move only if substantially modified.” I’m pretty happy to hear that.

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  5. Nate

    Wow, yeah, that’s a horrible law. Bicyclists are not considered pedestrians for a reason – they’re way too fast to merge with people on foot, and too fast to be given the same rights.

    I think this part is probably the worst though:
    Nor shall the fact that the bicyclist may have had a “Yield” sign, “Stop” sign or other traffic control device to warn of the upcoming roadway crossing be a defense to any civil claim arising from any crash or collision in or at the marked crossing.

    So, they’re saying the cyclist can plow through a red light at 30 miles an hour, and it’ll be the car’s fault if he gets hit?

    Every cyclist I know would hate this law. The current laws are sufficient and appropriate.

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