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S.A. eyes own rule on 'safe passing' for cyclists

The San Antonio Express: S.A. eyes own rule on ’safe passing’ for cyclists

By Tracy Idell Hamilton - Express-News

San Antonio took a step toward making its roads safer for bicyclists and pedestrians when a City Council committee voted unanimously Wednesday to send a “safe passing” ordinance to the full council for a vote next month.

The ordinance mirrors legislation — passed overwhelmingly last year by the Texas House and Senate — that requires drivers to change lanes to avoid “vulnerable road users” when possible, or give them three feet of clearance when passing.

Gov. Rick Perry vetoed the bill, stunning bike advocates and other members of a coalition that had worked for years to get bipartisan support for the measure.

Since the veto, a handful of municipalities, including Austin and Helotes, have put ordinances on their books identical to the state version.

With Wednesday’s decision, San Antonio’s council could consider the safe-passing ordinance as early as Feb. 4. Despite concerns raised by the Police Department, council members on Wednesday also backed the measure passed by state lawmakers.

“We’ll take whatever we can get,” said Abel Gonzales, who cycles nine miles each way from De Zavala and Interstate 10 to his job at Bike World at Loop 1604 and Blanco Road. “I still get yelled at to get on the sidewalk, which is illegal.”

In 2008, 50 Texas bicyclists were killed and another 274 suffered incapacitating injuries, according to a Texas Department of Transportation report. About 400 pedestrians are killed every year in Texas.

When he vetoed the legislation, Perry said it “contradicts much of the current statute and places the liability and responsibility on the operator of a motor vehicle when encountering one of these vulnerable road users.”

Calls for a local ordinance picked up after the deaths of Gregory Bruehler and his wife, Alexandra. The couple were riding a tandem bike when they were killed by a motorist last fall on Texas 16, just outside Helotes. The driver never was cited.

If passed by the City Council, the ordinance would be the foundation of an educational campaign to raise drivers’ awareness that they must legally share the road, Richard Varn, the city’s chief information officer and an avid cyclist, told the council’s governance committee at Wednesday’s meeting.

But a new law isn’t needed to increase that awareness, said Deputy Chief Mike Burns of the San Antonio Police Department. The SAPD agrees with Perry, he said, that existing laws are sufficient to protect cyclists and pedestrians.

Burns also questioned the enforceability of the proposed law.

“Austin hasn’t written a single ticket since it enacted” a similar ordinance in October, he said.

Because of its concerns, the SAPD worked with the city attorney and the city’s office of environmental policy to craft a narrower version of the state bill. Varn called the city’s version “the most enforceable and the easiest to understand.”

That version — which city staff recommended — reduced the types of vulnerable road users to just cyclists and pedestrians, and omitted the 3-foot rule, using undefined “safe distance” language instead.

But the four council members who make up the committee, along with Mayor Julián Castro, who serves as its chairman, unanimously chose the state version, which covers a much broader array of road users.

Under the measure, they include highway workers, tow-truck operators, horseback riders, wheelchair users and those driving farm equipment, scooters, mopeds and motorcycles, as well as cyclists and pedestrians.

“We wanted to be protective of folks in wheelchairs and on horseback as well,” Castro said. “The state legislation is very well-crafted, so I wanted to start off with the full version.”

Bike advocates welcomed the committee’s vote.

“We’re very pleased,” said Robin Stallings, executive director of BikeTexas, the educational wing of the Texas Bicycle Coalition, which worked to pass the statewide law.

Stallings said the state bill’s authors’, including state Rep. Roland Gutierrez, a former city councilman, have promised to re-introduce the bill next year.