June 2018 - BIKE, RUN & WALK
Making Our Roads Safer
Bicyclists and pedestrians face grave risks from motorists – especially distracted ones – but solutions are out there
By George LaMarche III, Esq. & Andrew Safranko, Esq.
As exercise enthusiasts, we are well aware that bicycling, running, and walking are among the healthiest physical activities imaginable.
But let’s be clear on one thing, bicycling, running, and walking on New York’s roadways also are inherently dangerous activities. For 75 years or more, our surface transportation infrastructure has been designed for conflict between automobiles and anyone else who dares get in their way. Despite attempts in recent years to improve overall traffic safety, deaths of pedestrians and bicyclists from crashes with cars are on the increase. And distracted driving from smartphone use is only making us less safe, as a generation of kids who grew up glued to their phones takes its place behind the steering wheel.
Legislation favoring the rights of motorists over pedestrians began in the early 20th century, when it became a crime to walk in the streets except where and when it was expressly permitted – and the term “jaywalking” was created to blame the offending pedestrians. And all these years later, those who continue to favor the rights of motorists above all others don’t give up easily. For example, the New York State Legislature once again will not pass a law requiring motorists to stay at least three-feet from bicyclists when passing them.Without more and better bike and walking lanes, and legislation to keep cars at a defined distance from bicyclists, we leave the safety of cyclists and pedestrians to the willingness of drivers to maintain awareness of their surroundings at all times. Unfortunately, both anecdotal and research-based evidence says this is simply not the reality of how many drivers think and act.
French psychological scientists, Nadine Chaurand and Patricia Delhomme, concluded in a 2012 study whose findings were published in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention, that there is a fundamental difference in how cyclists and drivers perceive risk perception on the road. Cyclists believe the greatest crash risks come from bike-car interactions, while drivers see more danger in their interactions with other cars, rather than bikes. In other words, while cyclists have to be aware of all traffic dangers to avoid injury or death, motorists are more content to focus on the risks posed by other cars – and to be less careful about interactions with bicycles and pedestrians.
To protect yourself from the inherent risks of bicycling, a good place to begin is knowing the law. NYS Vehicle and Traffic Law provides that bicyclists, as well as inline skaters, are “granted all of the rights and shall be subject to all of the duties applicable to the driver of a vehicle.” (NY Veh. & Traf. Law § 1231). In other words, bicyclists are treated by law pretty much the same as motorists, in that they are authorized to use the roadway and ride on the right side moving in the same direction as car traffic. This of course is well understood by experienced cyclists, though it can be surprising and frustrating how many amateur and rogue bicyclists ride on the sidewalk or on the wrong side of the roadway, or otherwise flout traffic laws.
The fact that New York law gives bicyclists the same general rights of way as motorists does not provide them automatic access to full use of the roadway. In fact, the law first directs cyclists and skaters to ride in “a usable bicycle or inline skate lane,” or if such a lane does not exist, “near the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway or upon a usable right-hand shoulder in such a manner as to prevent undue interference with the flow of traffic except when preparing for a left turn or when reasonably necessary to avoid conditions that would make it unsafe to continue along near the right-hand curb or edge.” Such conditions include fixed or moving objects, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards, and lanes “too narrow for a bicycle … and a vehicle to travel safely side-by-side within the lane.” (NY Veh. & Traf. Law § 1234a).
That last passage hints at a frustrating disconnect between state traffic law as written, and the ways in which New York lags behind other states in keeping up with best practices to improve bicycle safety – like implementing a three-foot-passing law. Unlike many states, New York does not mandate “Bikes May Use Full Lane” signs, which, studies show, improve both bicyclists’ and motorists’ understanding of the law – which does permit cyclists to move over and ride into the center of the lane when the roadway is too narrow to share.
Again, experienced cyclists should be familiar with most of the laws that apply to operating their bikes on state roadways, including required equipment such as brakes, lamps and reflectors (NY Veh. & Traf. Law § 1236), how to make proper hand signals (NY Veh. & Traf. Law § 1237), and so on. And you probably already know that you are prohibited from riding your bicycle on interstate highways; for other restricted-access highways, consult local postings.One other law that bears repeating is that any bicycle entering a roadway from a driveway, parking lot, alley, or sidewalk must come to a complete stop before doing so (NY Veh. & Traf. Law § 1234c).
Laws that Protect Bicyclists
Despite the fact that most of our roadway infrastructure was designed primarily for the convenience of automobiles, and that the movement to redesign cities and towns more favorably for bicycle and pedestrian use has only slowly begun to make up lost ground, cyclists and walkers do have rights, most notably in the state vehicle and traffic declaration that drivers must exercise “due care” regardless of who technically has the right of way:
“Notwithstanding the provisions of any other law to the contrary, every driver of a vehicle shall exercise due care to avoid colliding with any bicyclist, pedestrian, or domestic animal upon any roadway and shall give warning by sounding the horn when necessary” (NY Veh. & Traf. Law § 1146).
In the absence of a 3-foot law, vehicle and traffic law does provide that a vehicle operator overtaking a bicycle riding on the same side of a roadway “shall pass to the left of such bicycle at a safe distance until safely clear thereof” (NY Veh. & Traf. Law § 1122a). While “at a safe distance” is vague and subjective compared to “a distance of at least three feet,” it does give bicyclists rights that, under the best of circumstances, keep motorists from passing too closely – and potential grounds for legal action if a crash occurs.
Some cyclists consider “doorings” to be one of the nastiest and also most common threats to their safety on busy roadways where cars are allowed to park. And despite the nonchalance with which some drivers open first and look second, this offense is covered in state vehicle and traffic law: “No person shall open the door of a motor vehicle on the side available to moving traffic … until it is reasonably safe to do so and can be done without interfering with the movement of other traffic” (NY Veh. & Traf. Law § 1214).
Of course you don’t want to be hit with a “door surprise,” but you have legal recourse if it happens to you.
Trends and Technology in Bicyclist and Pedestrian Safety
Three-Foot Passing Laws – The good news is that 30 states now have them. The bad news is that New York doesn’t, as the bills introduced each year continue to stall in the state Assembly Transportation Committee.
“Complete Streets” Initiatives – These are becoming more and more popular with cities and towns across the country. There is no one-size-fits-all formula, but a Complete Streets plan is designed to increase transportation choices while making streets safer for everyone. This may involve sidewalk improvements; bike lanes (any bike lane is usually better than none, though “protected” bike lanes where the lane is sheltered from car traffic by a barrier or by parked cars are the safest); bus-only lanes and safer public transit stops; and “scramble crossings,” in which all car traffic at an intersection is halted for a cycle of pedestrian-only movement, including diagonal crossing.
Driverless Vehicles – Also called “autonomous” vehicles, these are coming whether we like them or not, and we urge you consider liking them, based on the fact that they will be programmed to be safer than most human drivers. The pedestrian fatality in Arizona earlier this year involving a driverless car reinforced calls for near-perfect technology, but also underscored the grim irony that cars with drivers kill 16 U.S. pedestrians a day.
Smartphone Blocking – Now there are laws everywhere restricting drivers’ use of handheld devices but they’re hard to enforce, and if you’ve never seen drivers looking down at their phones while zooming along on the road, then you probably never leave the house. Apparently, the technology to block drivers’ phones exists, but the devil is in the details and the politics.
George LaMarche III and Andrew Safranko are attorneys in Clifton Park who represent pedestrians, runners, and bicyclists who have been injured by vehicles. (pedbikelaw.com)