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Making a case for middle-of-the-road safety for cyclists

Samson, a Papillon, rides in the bike basket of owner Doug Short of Tampa in a then-new bicycle lane in February 2012 on Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa. Lanes need to be 14 feet to accommodate a biker and car.
Published Mar. 19, 2015

A reader and I recently struck up an email conversation after she raised concerns about bicyclists who, she said, were taking up the entire lane on Beach Drive near downtown St. Petersburg. Some of the cyclists' behavior she saw was rude and inexcusable. But she and I had a great exchange about where bicyclists should ride.

Many bike safety instructors believe that in many cases, if not most, bicyclists are riding more safely and responsibly if they "control the lane," meaning ride so that motorists must move into the adjacent lane to pass.

When I suggested to the woman that she could cross even a double yellow line to pass cyclists she said police say that's illegal.

Technically, she's right. St. Petersburg police Officer Michael Jockers, who investigates traffic homicides, said it isn't legal to cross a no-passing line to pass cyclists but he doesn't ticket motorists who do.

But he writes tickets if cyclists are in the middle of the lane. "We've been ticketing them since the 1990s," he said. He cited the law that requires bicyclists to ride as far to the right "as practicable." That indeed is what Florida Statute 316.2065(5) states. But that same law also has exceptions to that requirement, including "when a lane is too narrow for a bicycle and another vehicle to travel safely side by side." What's "too narrow"? The Florida Department of Transportation has issued guidance that any lane less than 14 feet wide is too narrow for bikes and cars to share. It's a matter of math, according to DeWayne Carver, the FDOT's Statewide Bicycle Pedestrian coordinator. He said a bike needs 4 feet, another 3 feet of clearance is required by law to pass a bike and a passenger vehicle is about 7 feet wide, with SUVs, trucks, buses and landscape trailers wider still. There are virtually no 14-foot-wide lanes in St. Petersburg.

"We need to educate police," said Carver, who confirmed the FDOT's guidance in Section 8.4.4 of its Plans and Preparation Manual. "We need to work together for a common understanding." It might be that officers, like many motorists, think riding to the right is safe and reasonable.

But it's not, according to Mighk Wilson, board president of the American Bicycling Education Association. "There is no evidence that riding in the middle of the road is less safe," he said.

Wilson controls the lane and said that if it were more dangerous he would hear a lot of squealing brakes and screeching tires as motorists try to avoid him. He said he has never heard either. And he points out that in an Orlando study, 62 percent of bike accidents happened, of all places, on the sidewalk.

There are several reasons to control the lane.

First, motorists are looking for traffic in the middle of the lane, not tucked along the side, perhaps blending in with parked cars or totally obscured by moving ones. Drivers of cars and bikes make quick decisions based on their experience about what to watch for. They glance where they expect to see traffic and, not seeing any, proceed with their turn, lane change, etc. That's why safety experts say cyclists in the middle of the lane, or even in the left side of the lane when approaching intersections, are more visible, especially to cars turning left from the opposite direction.

Second, controlling the lane disabuses motorists of the notion that they can squeeze by in the same lane. If it's not a 14-foot lane, they can't — safely.

Third, seeing a cyclist ahead in the lane, a motorist has plenty of time to look for a safe passing opportunity well before he comes upon the cyclist, exactly as he would if he came upon a garbage truck, stopped bus or slow-moving farm vehicle.

Fourth, debris, street grates, standing water and other hazards to bicycles lurk in all travel lanes. If a bicyclist is just a foot or two from the outer edge of the lane and encounters such hazards, there is no place to go if a car is in a narrow lane at the same time.

Unfortunately, according to the FDOT's Carver, even if a bike lane is substandard — in Florida, less than 4 feet wide — a cyclist must use it, though an argument might be made that if it's dangerous to do so, she has the right to move out of that bike lane.

Carver says much of bicycle law is confusing. That's why the department is working to clarify it.

In fact, a bill now before the Florida Legislature, HB 231, codifies the FDOT's guidance on lane width and specifically allows motorists to cross even double yellow lines to pass what it calls a "vulnerable user of a public right of way," such as bicyclists.

Wilson said bicyclists who are aware of the law and prepared for court appearances when ticketed for controlling the lane almost always win their case. But to do so is costly: a day off from work, travel costs to court and time lost fighting a ticket that shouldn't have been issued.

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

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