Thursday, March 4, 2010
By Amy Erickson
Last year a Plymouth County woman was hurt after being struck by a beer can while riding her bicycle along a country road.
Erin Schroeder still gets butterflies in her stomach when she climbs on her bike.
She hopes a proposed bicycle safety bill in the Iowa House of Representatives moves forward to help protect cyclists on the roadways.
“I’m super excited about it,” Schroeder said.
There are four main points in the proposed bicycle bill, which looks at safety for both motorists and bicyclists, said Mark Wyatt, president of the Iowa Bicycle Coalition.
* Vehicles or anything on them like mirrors must not get closer than 5 feet to a bicyclist while passing.
* Bicyclists must obey traffic signals and signs.
* Throwing items at bicyclists is a crime.
* Motorists cannot intentionally drive too close to bicyclists.
Wyatt said there is crash data showing a problem in Iowa with bicyclists being hit from behind on rural roadways because motorists are not giving enough passing room.
“I think laws do have the ability to change behavior,” Wyatt said. “Most bicyclists would say 99 percent of motorists follow the rules but 1 percent make it really difficult.”
Iowa Rep. Chuck Soderberg said he voted against the bicycle safety bill because he wasn’t satisfied with its current state.
“I voted against it because of the vagueness of some of the language,” Soderberg said.
For example the bill states motor vehicles shouldn’t be unreasonably close to bicycles.
“How would you define ‘unreasonably close’?” Soderberg said. “Ask a hundred people and you’ll probably get a hundred different answers.”
He also feels fines for violators of the proposed bicycle bill are out of line compared to other vehicle violation fines, which are generally around $35.
Offenders of the bicycle bill would receive a $250 fine and also pay court fees, a total cost of about $400, Soderberg said.
Schroeder, who is also a member of the Plymouth County Cyclists, doesn’t share Soderberg’s feelings concerning potential violators.
“If the law would have been in effect, maybe a fine that big would have deterred them (her assailants),” Schroeder said.
Other rejected amendments would have provided additional safety measures to the bill, and he would not vote for the bill without them, Soderberg said.
Two of the changes included mandating bicyclists have mirrors on their bikes or helmets and wear reflective clothing, he said.
Mirrors would allow bikers to see anyone approaching from behind and the high visibility clothing would make it easier to see the biker, said Soderberg, an avid cyclist.
“I think if we are going to pass a bicycle safety bill then we should do whatever we can to keep that bicyclist safe,” he said.
Unlike Soderberg, some bicyclists weren’t in favor of mirrors and reflective clothing because those could be barriers to people riding bicycles, Wyatt said.
People living in rural settings may find it difficult to locate stores that sell high visibility clothing and putting mirrors on bikes for those not trained to use them could be dangerous, Wyatt said.
“The bill applies to the senior citizen going to the post office or the grocery store down to the child on the tricycle,” he said. “We don’t want to prevent them from using a bicycle for transportation or physical activity.”
Theresa Nordstrom, president of the Plymouth County Cyclists, said the 5-foot rule for vehicles passing bicyclists is an important part of the bike safety bill.
“I know that people feel when people pass they should have more room,” Nordstrom said. “We understand if there is another car coming up, they may have to be a little bit closer.”
There have been 27 fatal bicycle accidents in the last four years in Iowa, Nordstrom said, based on data she read.
“For me, it’s scary,” she said. “When people pass you, we don’t really have anywhere to go.”
That’s the same statement a woman, who lives south of Le Mars and drives on K-49 daily, made about passing a bicyclist in her vehicle.
Parts of K-49 are very narrow and if she has to allow for the 5-feet to pass a bicyclist she would have to cross into the oncoming traffic lane to allow for that, the woman said.
She also said bicyclists should have to follow the same rules as other traffic.
“If they are going to be on the highway, I should be able to pass them as I would another vehicle,” the woman said. “It’s their own risk for being out on the highway; otherwise stick to the bike paths.”
Another Le Mars woman said the 5-foot passing rule isn’t going to help bicyclists keep safe.
“If somebody’s out to hurt them, they are going to do it anyway,” she said. “Most bicyclists that get hurt, it’s not because we’re getting too close. It’s intentional.”
A Le Mars man said bicyclists already have lanes for riding in painted on city streets like on Fourth Avenue in Le Mars and other bike paths.
Besides, he said, a bike safety law isn’t what the government should be focusing on.
“I think the whole thing is ridiculous,” he said. “The state has more important things to worry about, like the economy.”
As bicyclists and drivers continue to debate the bike safety bill, it has a few more steps to go before moving into the Senate.
Last week the bill left the human resources committee and is now eligible for debate in the House, if the majority party decides to bring it to the full House.
If that doesn’t happen, the bill will die.
Wyatt said members of the Iowa Bicycle Coalition, which includes Plymouth County Cyclists riders and other bikers, are hoping for the best when it comes to the bike safety bill.
“Bicyclists are watching this very carefully,” Wyatt said. “They are communicating with their legislators that they are in support of this issue.”
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