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Clarity on rules of the road would go a long way toward cyclist safety

Published Nov. 25, 2015

As Lorrie Lykins recently reported in the Dr. Delay column in the Times, sharrows, those markings of a bicycle with arrows painted on road surfaces, will soon be more common on area roads. Within the next year, they'll be on more than 50 blocks of St. Petersburg streets, including Central Avenue from the bay to 31st Street, according to Evan Mory, the city's transportation and parking director.

Add sharrows to the sizable list of bicycle laws, regulations and signs that are confusing to riders, motorists and even police officers.

As the Florida Bicycle Association's website states, "At any given time, there is no single complete, consistent, definitive interpretation recognized throughout the state. There are provisions of the traffic laws that are enforced differently in different parts of the state, and some are scarcely enforced at all. The same terms may have the same or different meanings in the statutes and various agencies' guiding documents."

Clarity would be welcome. U.S. bicycle mortality rates are double those in other developed countries, with injury rates that are eight to 30 times higher, according to a 2007 study published in Transport Reviews. U.S. traffic engineers and bicycling advocates want to reduce that number, but with no common understanding of the rules of the road, the task is Herculean.

Take, for example, signage. The "Share the Road" signs are considered "warning signs." Their purpose is to inform motorists that bikes are likely to be on the road. But I think to many motorists the signs mean "share the lane." As previously reported, there are few travel lanes that are 14 feet wide, the minimum width, according to Florida Department of Transportation guidelines, necessary for bikes and car to coexist in the lane.

Unless there is a marked bike lane, riders should control the lane to dissuade motorists from trying to squeeze by, that is, share the lane. That's where the new sharrows come in. "When you see a sharrow, it means the road is expected to be used by cyclists with some regularity, and that the cyclist may need to be anywhere in the travel lane," Florida DOT bicycle and pedestrian coordinator DeWayne Carver said in an email. Earlier standards allowed sharrows to be placed anywhere in the lane. In early 2014, sharrows were placed on the far right of Gulf Boulevard in Pinellas County, giving the impression that cyclists must stay to the far right. Updated guidance now recommends painting sharrows in the middle of the lane. And, Carver said, they may be accompanied by a "regulatory sign" that has a bicycle symbol, below which are the words "May Use the Full Lane."

But Florida law 316.2065 allows cyclists to use the full lane whenever the lane is "too narrow for a bicycle and another vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane." So at any time, a motorist may see riders toward the middle of the lane, controlling it in a way that is meant to encourage motorists to wait until the adjacent lane is clear before passing.

That's a tough sell to some drivers. However, a study by George Hess, a professor at North Carolina State University, has found that the "May Use the Full Lane" sign helps. Its presence on roadways increases the understanding among motorists that they should wait until it's clear to pass and that bicyclists are permitted in the lane. It also increases the perception of rider safety among motorists and riders. Despite the presence of a "Full Lane" sign, though, up to 8 percent of the population didn't think cyclists should have that privilege.

A number of other cycling laws need clarification or, sometimes, complete overhauls. My experience is that drivers think if there is a bike lane, the 3-foot rule doesn't apply. But there is no exception to the law. Riders will often use the left half of a bike lane to avoid gravel near the curb or parked cars whose doors can suddenly swing open. Motorists should move to the left to give the cyclists adequate clearance — at least 3 feet.

The 3-foot rule itself is problematic. A bill filed for the next state legislative session would clarify that the measurement is from the closest portion of the car to the rider, including side-view mirrors, landscape trailers, etc.

In fact, the 3-foot rule is largely unenforceable. Courts can dismiss citations because the officer issuing a ticket cannot verify that the distance he observed was less than 3 feet. Another bill may be in the works that does away with the 3-foot rule entirely and replaces it with the same "move over" requirement that motorists passing emergency vehicles on the roadside must follow: Cars must reduce their speed to 20 mph less than the posted speed limit and, if possible, move into the adjacent lane.

The filed bill, HB 253, also explicitly allows cars to cross over any no-passing line when passing a bicyclist. It also allows groups of four or more cyclists to act as one through stop signs. Once the group stops, all cyclists may proceed through the stop sign. This is a courtesy that many motorists already give riders.

Finally, current law allows cyclists to ride two abreast but they "may not impede traffic when traveling at less than the normal speed of traffic at the time and place and under the conditions then existing and shall ride within a single lane." This has been interpreted by some to mean that any bike rider traveling at less than the average speed, which includes most riders on most roads, cannot ride two abreast. The Florida Bicycle Association website summary of bicycle laws argues that this is an inaccurate interpretation of the law. Again, clarification is needed.

I remain convinced that a greater understanding of the rights and responsibilities of bicyclists and motorists will help improve safety. Clarifying laws and education are key, as is compliance with the law by both bike riders and motorists.

Bob Griendling is president of the St. Petersburg Bicycle Club and a member of the Mayor's Bicycling and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. Contact him at bob@griendling.com.

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