JOHNSON COUNTY- A petition initiated by a concerned group of neighbors has sparked statewide debate about the use of bicycles on Iowa’s roadways.
At least one locally-based organization is pushing back with a petition effort of its own.
Since July 7, an informally-organized group calling themselves the Citizens for Safety Coalition of Iowa (CFSC) has encouraged people to sign a petition seeking to ban bicycles from Iowa’s Farm-to-Market roads. Nearly 800 signatures have been obtained through an online petition, with more signatures gathered on paper copies being circulated throughout the state, said CFSC member Dan Jones of Van Meter, Iowa.
The impetus for the petition was not a single incident, or even a series of events, Jones said, quelling speculation that the petition was sparked by accidents given high-profile media coverage, such as a fatal Crawford County bicycle accident during the 2004 Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) that resulted in a lawsuit against Crawford County, or a May 2009 crash in Polk City that caused serious injury to a Polk County Sheriff’s Office division chief.
“The lawsuit was not in any way how it started,” said Jones. “We don’t want to focus on any specific accident. It’s just that we all have a story of when we were driving a vehicle, didn’t see a bicycle, and had a very close call”
The petition calls for state legislators to support a ballot initiative for the November 2010 election to prohibit bicyclists from using state highways and county Farm-to-Market routes (paved roads that connect Iowa’s rural agricultural areas to municipal areas).
The petition’s premise is that, due to growing commerce and increased use of county highways by both motorized vehicles and recreational cyclists, “shared roadways are no longer safe or practical in today’s society”
According to statistics from the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) website, in 2006, there were 443 bicycle-motor vehicle crashes involving one or more bicyclists; five riders were killed and 433 injured. Among those injured, 43 percent were age 14 years or younger.
In 2007, according to data from the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau of the Iowa Department of Public Safety, seven bicycle riders were killed in Iowa crashes. Nationally, the number rises to 698 bicyclists killed in traffic crashes in 2007.
For Jones and the members of CFSC, even one is too many.
“How many fatalities do we have to have before people realize there is a problem with bicycles on the road?” Jones asked.
But members of the Iowa Bicycle Coalition (IBC) maintain that while numbers of cyclists have increased, the average number of bike/vehicle related crashes and injuries has not. The Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau reports the annual average of deaths in bicycle crashes has dropped, from eight per year in the decade of the ’90s, to five fatalities per year since 2000.
And while IBC representatives agree that even one death is too many, they argue a bicycle ban is not the answer; therefore, the group countered CFSC’s efforts with a petition of its own.
“More can be done to make cyclists safer including changes to infrastructure, enforcement, policy, and awareness,” is the petition’s premise. The IBC’s petition was also initiated at the grassroots level, and when it was made available online, it garnered more than 2,000 signatures in just one week.
“We wanted to get the story about what can really do to effect safety on the front end,” said IBC Executive Director Mark Wyatt.
In fact, the Iowa Bicycle Coalition’s mission is not only to advocate for bicyclists’ rights, but also to promote safety and education for all. Eight of the 12 core values listed on the IBC’s website specifically address not only cyclists’ rights, but also their responsibilities to be safe and educated operators, and to follow all rules on roads, streets and trails.
“We have a two pronged effort,” Wyatt said. “We work to educate bicyclists and we have a social marketing campaign. Both are a challenge to make big impacts”
The mere numbers alone present a challenge; Wyatt said there are an estimated 350,000 adult bicyclists throughout the state that actively ride.
While those riders are regulated by the same traffic rules as other vehicles, the Iowa code contains conflicts, Wyatt noted, in how it defines “vehicles,” and there are also inconsistencies in how the Iowa Courts have viewed reckless driving in cases that involve bicycles.
“If there is a fuzzy area in the code, prosecutors will avoid trying to bring charges that won’t stick,” said Wyatt.
For example, Iowa law assesses penalties when a driver is convicted of a traffic crash that involves a serious injury or fatality, whether the victim is on a bicycle, in a motor vehicle, or is a pedestrian.
“If you unsafely pass someone and that person is killed or injured, you could lose your license for six months,” said Wyatt, but “in one case, a cyclist was killed in northwest Iowa. The driver was likely distracted and may have been looking at her phone. She hit the bicyclist from behind. Despite being at fault and driving recklessly, she was given a $35 fine”
Jones and his fellow coalition members contend the only way to avoid accidents such as this is to keep cyclists off the road.
“We just want them banned on Farm-to-Market routes, period. Accidents happen and nobody would ever intend to hit a bicyclist,” Jones said. “Not only does it ruin the bicyclist’s life, it also ruins the motorist’s life. Forever. Nobody wants that”
The CFSC will continue to circulate its petition and offer it online for the foreseeable future, at least until the end of this year, perhaps even into next spring. Once all signatures are gathered, CFSC members will contact their Iowa legislators to present them with the petition and its tenants.
The fact that citizen petitions do not have any legal teeth in the state’s legislative process does not concern Jones.
“The biggest reason for the petition was to get people to sign and support it. The more signatures we have, the more the people in the legislature are going to have to view the situation”
Jones wouldn’t offer names, but said he knows of several legislators who “see the points of both sides, and they understand there is a problem. Obviously a petition is not going to decide the law, but it can get a response from individual lawmakers”
However, at least two local legislators say a different tact might be more effective. Representative Dave Jacoby, a Democrat from House District 30 in Johnson County, said, “Petitions are important, but they don’t carry near the weight that individual letters from constituents do”
Fellow Democrat Nate Willems, who represents House District 29 in Linn County, generally agreed.
“The key is not the form in which the message is delivered; the key is that we see the message is coming from an individual constituent,” Willems said. “It’s more powerful if that person has taken the time to share their individual thoughts as opposed to signing a form. An email or letter can be more effective”
Still, Wyatt does not dismiss the potential impact of the CFSC petition.
“A debate of bicycle safety will help correct facts, overcome myths, and raise awareness,” Wyatt said, but added people should be careful when reading all the arguments. “This debate has been positive for the (Iowa Bicycle) Coalition’s mission, but there is a fine line. There are intricacies in the Iowa Code, and when they are quoted on face value, the public seems to believe that is the way the code reads”
Jones also encourages continued discussion of the issue.
“I think the response to this petition is a good thing. It puts the issue of safety out there for bicycles and motorists both,” Jones concluded. “The more people talk about it, the more awareness it brings to the situation”
For more information about the Citizens for Safety Coalition of Iowa, visit www.cfscofiowa.com, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about the Iowa Bicycle Coalition, visit www.iowabicyclecoalition.org.