The Explainer: Share the damn road
A year or two back the State of Colorado passed a law requiring drivers to give cyclists a minimum of three feet while passing. Speaking just from my own experiences, I noticed that drivers seemed to be aware of the new law for about one news cycle, after that it was back to the normal close calls and brush backs. My question: has there been any evidence that the new law has increased the safety of cyclists? Is there any evidence that our law enforcement agencies are even enforcing this law?
A side note on this law. Here in Grand Junction we have an entity of the National Park Service with a really gorgeous road ride through it. You may have heard of it, it’s called “Tour of the Moon” and it was included in the Coors Classic. Anyway, that road, like most if not all roads in National Parks, is a federal road and hence state traffic laws, including the three-foot law, do not apply. Something to remember if ever you find yourself riding a road in a National Park or Monument.
P.S. The last I heard you’re on the mend, hope that still the case. How much longer and what will it take for you to get a clean bill of health?
As to your first question, I can answer with a resounding maybe. Colorado is now one of 20 states that have enacted similar three-foot passing zones. Many of those have been enacted in the past three or four years so it may take a while to do a definitive study as to how effective the rule has been.
Whether Colorado’s “three-foot rule” has had an impact in reducing fatalities is probably a question that won’t be answered for a few years, until solid crash data is available and subsequently analyzed. That takes some time and since Colorado’s law is only a couple of years old, it could be a while before we get a definitive answer. Like the rest of the country, Colorado has generally seen a gradual decline in bicycle-related injuries and fatalities over the years and that trend has continued since passage of the three-foot rule.
Either way, it has to be an improvement. The law provides a guide for cyclists, drivers and police. It can also assist in determining just who is at fault in the event of an accident, meaning that plaintiffs, their lawyers and, ultimately, a judge or jury, can use the law as guide in deciding civil cases. All of those are a big plus for riders, even if the immediate impact isn’t discernible from crash statistics.
As for enforcement, there have been a number of cases in which police have either failed to enforce the rule when they see it violated or, worse, failed to take the law into consideration when investigating an accident. My friend Rick Bernardi did a terrific piece on the rather odd interpretation of the law by police in Loveland, Colorado, last year.
When it comes to enforcement, there is no real hard data and we’re left to work with the anecdotal, instead. Aggressive ticketing and other enforcement, said Dan Grunig, the executive director of Bicycle Colorado (and one of the “good guys” when you think of lobbyists) wasn’t the primary goal when the organization worked for the passage of the bill, sponsored by Republican Senator Greg Brophy and Democratic Representative Mike Merrifield. Grunig said the law represents a significant improvement over what was out there before the 2009 revisions.
“It’s really not as much about enforcement as it is raising awareness,” Grunig said. “That’s where the law can really make a difference.”
And, for at least a brief moment, it had a direct impact. I think you’re right in observing that there was a notable – although short-lived – difference in drivers’ behavior around bicycles. Most of my cycling friends in Colorado noticed the same thing and also noticed that it was but a fleeting phenomenon.
To continue to raise awareness, Bicycle Colorado has recently succeeded in getting a mention of the law included in Colorado’s drivers’ manual and on the test one is required to pass before being issued a driver’s license. These are baby steps, to be sure, but they are steps in the right direction.
Of course, the ideal would be the establishment of a national policy that would mandate the establishment of safe passing distances for automobiles passing bicycles. Quick action on that is unlikely, given that this is an election year, Congress hasn’t really been accomplishing a whole heck of a lot lately and when they have, it hasn’t always been what one might term “bicycle friendly.”
The establishment of a national policy would, of course, address your other question about whether the Colorado law applies to roads within the confines of national parks. Actually, there again, we have something of a mixed answer. The Colorado law does apply to state roads that travel through national parks, but if a road is exclusively within the confines of the park, then federal rules apply.
Your question also raises an interesting question about who is actually in charge of roads, particularly when they take you through a park or community while you travel from point A to point B.
Whose road is it anyway?
At the risk of being accused of having a “Colorado bias” (an odd, but frequent, accusation when it comes to a long-time resident of Wyoming), I would urge you to keep track of a case now before the Colorado Supreme Court. At issue is whether local communities may enforce a ban on bicycle traffic on certain roads, even when there exists no reasonable alternative route, especially for those trying to get through town.
The City of Black Hawk was once a sleepy little mountain community, established at the height of Colorado’s silver boom in the 19th century. Once most of the mines had played out, Black Hawk was damn close to becoming a ghost town … until city fathers and their neighbors in Central City got the state’s permission to establish casino gambling in both towns. The resulting boom probably puts the heady days of the silver rush to shame.
Black Hawk’s steep and narrow streets are now lined with glistening monuments to the math-impaired and its roads are packed with cars and tour buses full of those willing to accelerate the depletion of their checking accounts in a statistically predictable manner. In the old days, the road through Central City and Black Hawk offered a really nice way to get on to one of this country’s most beautiful bike routes, the famed Peak-to-Peak highway.
Indeed, the same road now at issue in this case was thrice used by racers in the short-lived Boulder to Breckenridge road race promoted by Len Pettyjohn. Despite the community’s role in racing history, the city council, in 2009, voted to prohibit cycling “on any street, highway, or public way” upon which the city had posted “appropriate signage.”
At issue in this case is not whether the City Council of Black Hawk is populated by bone-heads (that appears to be settled at this point), but whether or not a community along an otherwise passable route can simply enact its own traffic rules that stand starkly in contrast with state and federal laws, rules and guidelines and do so even when it negatively impacts neighboring communities.
The bike ban aside, if the Court upholds Black Hawk’s position in this case, I can see little to keep another town from suddenly deciding that its affinity for all things British allows it to force drivers to operate their vehicles on the left side of the road.
I plan on following the case closely and expect that I’ll be doing a longer, more detailed column on the case of The City of Black Hawk v. Rational Thought when the Colorado Supremes issue a ruling.
Now, as for your P.S., John, I am doing quite well. I am not sure when oncologists issue a permanent “clean bill of health,” especially since I am going to be monitored and checked up for years to come. My latest PET scans, however, show no cancer and that is good news after going through all of this crap for these past few months. I still thank my lucky stars for catching this thing early. Chemo is but a fading memory at this point. My hair is growing back and all of the other hideous side-effects of treatment are quickly fading. I am planning to be out on the bike more often as the weather here in Wyoming improves and … well, speaking of which, it’s time to go for a ride. I’ll be moving mighty slow, so be sure to give me three feet when you pass me, okay?
The Explainer is now a weekly feature on Red Kite Prayer. If you have a question related to the sport of cycling, doping or the legal issues faced by cyclists of all stripes, feel free to send it directly to The Explainer at Charles@Pelkey.com. PLEASE NOTE: Understand that reading the information contained here does not mean you have established an attorney-client relationship with attorney Charles Pelkey. Readers of this column should not act upon any information contained therein without first seeking the advice of qualified legal counsel licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.
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