Yesterday, Pennsylvania became the 20th state to enact a law requiring motorists to maintain a buffer zone between their vehicles and cyclists. What makes the state slightly different is that Pennsylvania is requiring four feet of room, rather than the three legislated by the previous nineteen states. But will one more foot really make a difference? And how exactly will this law be enforced?
Think about it. What are the odds of a police officer actually witnessing a motorist buzzing a cyclist? And do we really think they’re going to pull them over for it? More likely, it may just result in another ticket for the motorist after an accident. Not many cyclists are likely to take solace in that, especially if they were just struck by a car, and are injured, or had their bike destroyed, or both. Interestingly enough, there are now provisions on the books against sudden turns in front of cyclists as well. While I suppose we should be happy that the “right hook” can now be addressed by a specific vehicle code, my guess is that previously, an “unsafe turn” or something similar would have covered it. Another entry into the state vehicle code book isn’t going to change the behavior of motorists.
Complicating matters somewhat, the also state acknowledges that bicyclists have the same right to the road as motorists. The expression applied to traffic law is “first come, first served”. So there is no requirement for a cyclist traveling slower than the speed of traffic to yield to other vehicles. The caveat is that the cyclist must be moving at a speed deemed reasonable for a bicycle under the current conditions. That sounds wildly open to interpretation to me, leaving it up to a police officer to determine the proper speed. I’m not a fan of this either, as the police should be called upon to enforce the law as written, and any interpretation should be left up to the courts. Instead, we could have situation where a cyclist that might be able to maintain 18 MPH is not in violation of the law, but one going only 14 MPH is. Imagine if motorists got tickets for being less fit than the driver in front of them. Yeah, right.
In the end, I commend the state of Pennsylvania for at least acknowledging the problem. But I think that the new laws are nothing more than a bit of “feel good” legislation, with no real teeth. If they want to effect real change in how motor vehicle operators and bicyclists interact, then perhaps highly publicized, and highly aggressive enforcement of the current laws should be done on a regular basis. And I’m not just talking about staking out that one corner where cyclists are given the squeeze, or cut off. It’s only fair that they ticket cyclists that run stop lights and stop signs too. That may help to remind both groups (who are sometimes one or the other, depending on the day and the weather) that using the roadway is a privilege and not a right, and that they need to share the road, while obeying the law. It’s for the safety of everyone involved.