Published on Wednesday, February 17, 2010 5:19 PM AKST
Guest opinion by Thomas Pease
The Anchorage Police Department has proposed new language in the Municipal Traffic Department’s Title 9 traffic rewrite that would negatively impact bicyclists throughout Anchorage. Current code (sect. 9.38.020(c)) requires motorists to yield to bikers and other non-motorized users at all intersections. Recently, municipal traffic planners inserted language into the draft Title 9 rewrite that would reverse this arrangement and would require all human-powered vehicles to yield to vehicles at all intersections (See the Press’s “Don’t get your chain in a knot just yet,” December 17, by Scott Christiansen). This new language will not reduce collisions between vehicles and bicycles, but it will unduly burden non-motorized users and could encourage bicyclists to ride on the roads.
In Anchorage, according to DOT findings in the 2009 draft Anchorage Bicycle Plan, bicycle-vehicle collisions decreased significantly from 170 in 2003 to 103 in 2006. The sharpest collision decreases occurred after the current traffic ordinance passed in 2004, which requires drivers to yield to bicycles at intersections. This data shows that it’s safer for cars to yield to bicycles, and not the other way around.
The proposed language would unfairly shift legal liability involving bicycle-vehicle collisions squarely onto the cyclist. Bicycles would be required to yield to vehicles at all intersections, even signaled intersections. If a turning vehicle struck a bicyclist crossing an intersection on the white “man” signal, the bicyclist would be legally liable. (In fact, drivers making right-hand turns cause 33 percent of all bicycle-vehicle accidents at intersections.) Not only would the bicyclist now be responsible for medical bills, but for damage to the vehicle as well. Additionally, the new language would require cyclists to yield to motorists crossing any separated pathway. If a collision occurred where a driveway or side street crosses a separated pathway, the proposed language again shifts fault to the cyclist.
The proposal to address bicycle-vehicle collisions is unworkable. Ten or more driveways and side roads cross any half-mile stretch of pathway that parallels most busy streets in Anchorage (consider Muldoon, C Street, Lake Otis). Multiply that half-mile by 10 for the five-mile average bike commute, and cyclists cross 100 intersections along a separated pathway on a single bike commute. To have to stop at even half these intersections because a car is present could increase commute time to the point of rendering biking impractical. Ironically, travel delays and legal threats to bike commuters created by proposed code language could force more bicycles off pathways and onto roadways, where bicyclists are granted the same rights as motorists. In other words, under the proposal, motorists may find themselves sharing roads with more cyclists, while the pathways that parallel these roads sit unused.
This proposal may have arisen out of the observation that motor vehicles sometimes fail to yield to bicycles, resulting in bicycle-vehicle collisions at intersections. Rather than change the law, we should find ways to help drivers obey the current law.
The Municipality and Anchorage residents can promote safe bicycling by doing the following:
2) DMV and APD should sponsor educational programs promoting bicycle awareness and emphasizing current traffic codes.
3) Parks and Recreation and APD should team with the school district, youth groups and cycling clubs to teach bicycle safety.
4) The city should initiate an ad campaign to remind drivers to look both ways for pedestrians and cyclist before pulling into traffic.
5) APD should cite cyclists and drivers who violate present traffic codes. Consequences should include fines and traffic safety classes.
6) Cyclists should submit comments to the Municipal Traffic Department and the Assembly on new language proposed to Title 9, section 38.020 (c). (Watch for a public comment period as early as next month.)
We can reduce bicycle-motorist collisions through education and basic safety measures rather than through punitive bicycle codes. The community should encourage the Municipal Traffic Department to remove the proposed language in section 38.020 (c) of the Title 9 traffic rewrite to preserve the progress our city has made in promoting bicycling as a safe and healthy alternative to driving.
When Anchorage resident Thomas Pease isn’t commuting by bicycle, he drives a Chevy three-quarter-ton turbo diesel truck that yields to human-powered vehicles.