NEWSLETTER ARTICLE: Members in Action

by russ willis

[This is an article from the Summer 2004 issue of The Hub, MoBikeFed's newsletter. Articles from The Hub are posted on the website on a delayed basis. To receive articles on time and directly to your mailbox, please join MoBikeFed.]

The following is an article published in one of the St Louis papers in April 2004. The article highlights the legislation submitted by the Missouri Bicycle Federation during the 2004 session. Articles like this help to soften the sentiments and increase the sensitivity of motorists toward alternate transportation means. MoBikeFed, in cooperation with the St. Louis Bicycle Federation and other bicycle and pedestrian groups around the state, is working on bicycle safety legislation in 2005. Some of the provisions that are not part of the 2005 legislation will be part of legislative proposals in future years.

You are biking on a city street, two or three feet out from the curb to avoid the cracked pavement and broken glass, a couple of feet out from the parking lane to avoid getting "doored." In other words, you are taking the lane which under Missouri law you are required to do. And in your mirror you see a sport utility vehicle coming up behind you, and you can sense that it is going to crowd you—the driver doesn't want to give you any clearance.

Maybe she leans on the horn or revs her engine, or maybe she is just not paying attention at all, talking on her cell phone. There is oncoming traffic in the opposite lane, and you are going only eighteen miles an hour, so the motorist would have to wait to pass you safely if you continue to assert the lane. But, of course, the driver doesn't see it that way. She passes within maybe six inches, forcing you to the right. Maybe she shouts at you through the open passenger window, “get off the road.” Maybe, in an extreme case, a passenger reaches out the window and smacks you on the shoulder. Or someone in the car throws a can or bottle at you. Because you are a capable cyclist, you do not panic or crash. You make a note of the plate number and pull over to the curb to call the police on your cell phone. After half an hour, an officer arrives and takes your statement. Would you be able to identify the driver? Maybe not. Then, if he denies this incident occurred, the police will not pursue it. Why not? Isn't this an assault with a deadly weapon? No, the prosecutor doesn't see it that way. Even if you had been struck and injured, the driver probably would not have been charged with anything other than improper lane usage or failure to yield—misdemeanor traffic charges. With no injury, the only charge (if someone threw a bottle at you) might be peace disturbance. Something like this is an almost daily occurrence in the life of a transportation cyclist.

Members of the board of the St. Louis Regional Bicycle Federation (BikeFed) sat down with local prosecutors some months ago to discuss this, and although they were sympathetic, the prosecutors said that as a practical matter it is difficult to prove “criminal intent,” and that, unless there is an independent violation, such as speeding, running a stop, or driving under the influence, they cannot prosecute these cases. Two years ago, a nationally known pedestrian advocate was run over and killed by a tour bus in downtown St. Louis as she was crossing the street. The driver was ultimately convicted of failure to yield the right of way. Negligent homicide charges were not brought.

There is a bill pending in the Missouri legislature that would begin to change this equation. The provisions of SB 1031, which have been incorporated into SB 710, would (among other things) require a motorist to exercise “the highest degree of care” to avoid injuring a cyclist or a pedestrian. Passing closer than three feet would by definition fail this requirement. If the cyclist is seriously injured, the motorist could be charged with second degree assault. If the cyclist is killed, the motorist could be charged with first degree manslaughter. The “highest degree” standard would also make it easier for an injured cyclist to prosecute a civil claim for damages. This bill was reported out of the Transportation commit-tee in early March [2004], and was passed by the full Senate on March 31. A similar bill filed in the House, HB 1122, was referred to the Transportation committee in February, where it appears to be languishing.

Of course, legislation and enforcement are not the only way to educate the public about the rights of cyclists. It is not always obvious to even a well-intentioned motorist how exactly to share the road safely. The BikeFed is engaged in a variety of educational and public relations efforts to raise awareness of these issues. More information concerning these efforts can be found online at stlbikefed.org.

R. Willis is Policy Task Force Chair of the St. Louis Regional Bicycle Federation.

Have you had an experience good or bad with advocating for bicycle accommodations in your area? We’d love to hear about it! Submit your experiences to the editor at Leevie@AOL.com.