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Legislature Gears Up

Boise Weekly: Legislature Gears Up

Despite deaths, bike bills still tough sell at statehouse
by Andrew Crisp

"In the last year, there were six traffic deaths. Driggs, Twin Falls and Boise all faced incidents of motor vehicle and cyclist death incidents. After these incidents happened, the public discussion was replete with misunderstandings, there was anger ...," said Kurt Holzer, a Boise lawyer and avid cyclist. Sharing the road has been controversial in Idaho, with angry families of injured cyclists pitted against motorists who feel demonized--and it's not just in the Treasure Valley. Road bike popularity has grown all over the state, from Idaho Falls to Lewiston and Coeur d'Alene. The issue: How do we share the roads?

That's why they call them road safety bills. But of the four brought to the Senate Transportation Committee recently, only two managed to make it out in their original form. This package is designed to smooth the interactions between bike riders and drivers, after a deadly summer for cyclists on Idaho roads. The committee approved the two bills, which place limits on cyclists, sending the more driver-oriented two to be amended.

The two bills that the committee got hung up on, 1348 and 1350, were diverted by the more rural legislators on the committee. S.B. 1348 would provide a statewide "3 feet to pass" buffer for cyclists on roads, as the City of Boise recently enacted, even allowing motorists to cross a double yellow line if necessary. S.B. 1350 would protect cyclists from harassment by motorists and create penalties for such infractions. As Unda' the Rotunda went to press, the two bills sat in the 14th Order of the Senate, where they're essentially free game for any senator seeking to "tweak" the language.

"I came in here thinking, you know, we need to be looking at bike safety," said Sen. Joyce Broadsword, a North Idaho Republican. "The more I read the bill, though, the more I am concerned that it has some flaws."

This statement came after unexpected testimony from Jerry Deckard, a lobbyist for the Associated Logging Contractors of Idaho.

"I'd like to remind you that most of the roads in Idaho are different than here in the capital city. Most of our roads here in Idaho are for commerce. Remember, that vehicle could be hauling a 105,000-pound shipment of woodchips." He continued, when questioned: "You can't get 'er shut down, and you can't get over that double yellow line because there's another vehicle comin' at ya. Where are you gonna take her? It's either the bus or the cyclist."

"What I'm hearing you say is one way or another, you're gonna kill somebody," responded Sen. Elliot Werk, a Boise Democrat, cyclist and sponsor of all four bills. Deckard's testimony came after that of numerous cyclists and runners from the Treasure Valley and beyond, including Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong--whom committee chairman Sen. John McGee welcomed profusely--and Boise Police Deputy Chief of Operations Jim Kearns, who served on a city cycling safety task force.

"Within the circle of cyclists that I ride with, I hear of harassment once a week. This is anywhere from screaming out the windows to startle you, coming very close with extra extended mirrors to scare you. I've had firecrackers thrown at me," Armstrong said.

Kearns spoke about the impact of a statewide standard for biker-driver relations.

"In May of 2009, there were three very tragic deaths of bicyclists in Boise. We lost three of our citizens in a very short period of time," said Kearns. "This bill is not about bicyclists, it's not about the motorists, it's about safety. As a police officer, this bill is a good bill."

But lawmakers cannot help but take sides on biker-driver interactions. After Deckard mentioned his truckers, Broadsword also lovingly referred to "her" truck drivers back in District 2 (that's Sagle, Idaho, if you've never heard of it).

"When I say my trucks, I mean those trucks operating in my district; I don't own them, personally. When I say 'my trucks,' I take ownership through the powers vested in me," Broadsword blundered.

The bills that did make it through the committee, however, place sanctions specifically on these "vulnerable road users."

S.B. 1349 bars cyclists from darting into intersections, and mandates brakes to stem the hipster-fueled fixed gear craze. S.B. 1351 would create a fund into which the money from proposed penalties for bike-driver infractions would be funneled.

Werk said the bill helps truckers by allowing them to safely cross a double yellow and by forcing cyclists who are holding up more than three vehicles to let them pass.

"These aren't cycling bills, they're road safety bills. We're calling them 'vulnerable road users.' That extends to pedestrians, to runners, to people in wheelchairs. This package acknowledges that these users have very little leeway on the roads," Werk said.

"When the mouse tries to share something with the elephant, it's not an equitable sharing mechanism. If I'm the mouse, and I try to share room with the elephant, there's not an equitable amount of space, regardless of how much I yell about it."