It’s been a beautiful autumn here lately; blue skies, sunny days, the leaves turning beautiful hues of yellow, orange, and red before falling. The leaves haven’t been alone in falling this autumn. In the past few weeks, we’ve lost too many cyclists to collisions with motorists. For example, there was Linda Cleapor, who collided with the rear of a truck on September 12 while on her morning commute. No charges were filed. A week later, Lloyd Clarke, was out for a ride on September 20 in Incline Village, Nevada, when a truck coming from the opposite direction turned left across his right of way and killed him. No charges were filed. October proved even more deadly for cyclists. On October 11, 19 year old cyclist and art student TraceySparling, was in the bike lane in Portland, Oregon, waiting for the light to change. When the light changed, the cement truck to her left turned across her right of way, killing her before she had even started under way. No charges were filed. A few days later, on October 16, cyclist JoseBarranco was killed in Dana Point, California, when a drunk driver lost control of her vehicle and hit him on the sidewalk, where he was riding home from work. Three days later, on October 19, cyclist Sarah Howard was in the bike lane in Meridian, Idaho, waiting for the light to change, when a driver lost control of her vehicle and careened into Sarah, killing her. On October 21, cyclists Lee Anne Barry and Tom Hoskins were hit by an SUV in Lancaster County, South Carolina, while riding to raise awareness of brain injuries. On October 22, a mere eleven days after Tracey Sparling’s death, Portland, Oregon was again stunned when cyclist Brett Jarolimek was killed by a garbage truck that turned right, across his right of way. Again, no charges were filed.
I will be offering my thoughts on these incidents in a later column. I will also be discussing the two recent Portland fatalities in a guest column for Portland cyclist and web journalist Jonathan Maus’ site Bikeportland; that column should be published at the same time this column is published. For now, I would like to offer my condolences to the friends and families of these fallen cyclists, taken from us unjustly, and too soon. And for all of my readers, I would urge you to be particularly careful to observe both the law and safe cycling practices when you ride, first and foremost to prevent becoming another sobering reminder yourself, and to safeguard your rights if luck is not on your side.
Last column, we had two questions from reader Jen Benepe, the publisher of New York Cycle News and president of Hotvelociti,who had two separate run-ins with mistaken law enforcement officers in the space of few days. We discussed the incident in her first question last week; this week, we’re going to take a look at the incident in her second question:
I am about to take a left hand turn on a two lane road which is fairly narrow. If I went all the way to the double yellow line, invariablysomeone from behind would come too close, plus I don’t want to be hit from the other direction. I make a mistake and am one block (one block!) too soon, meaning, I have to go two blocks with my hand out instead of one before I turn. I jump almost out of my skin when I hear behind me a loudspeaker blasting, “If you are going to take a left hand turn get out of the middle of the road,” and something like “now move it,” barked at me once again, this time from another equally ill-informed police officer from a different municipality but in the same area. If I had been a car, he would never have dared say such a thing, and moving back to the right would have endangered me unnecessarily. Plus I believe I had the legal right to be there. Again, what is the law in this case, and how should I address his behavior?
Jen, it’s not clear which municipality this incident occurred in; therefore, it’s unclear what local laws, if any, apply. However under NewYork state law, while bicycles are not vehicles, cyclists are accorded all of the rights and are subject to all of the duties applicable to the operators of vehicles. Assuming that no local law is applicable, under state law you were required to ride near the right-hand edge of the roadway, except under certain conditions, including when preparing to make a left-hand turn. In this incident, you were preparing to make a left-hand turn; therefore,you were not required to ride near the right-hand edge of the roadway once you began preparing to make your turn. In fact, under New York state law, once you begin preparing to make your left-hand turn, you are required by law to be positioned in the lane nearest to the center line of the roadway. This is, in fact, exactly whereyou were riding when you were admonished by a law enforcement officer to“get out of the middle of the road.” In short, you were in complete compliance with New York Vehicle & Traffic Law when the officer orderedyou to “get out of the middle of the road.”
It’s unclear from the officer’s order from what road position he expectedyou to make your turn, and it’s equally unclear whether local law prohibits you from making a left turn as required by New York state law, or whether the officer is merely misinformed on what the law requires of cyclists, or doesn’t care what the law is, and is enforcing his own version of the traffic laws. Now, regardless of your error in the choice of which street to turn at, it is probably safe to say that the operator of a motor vehicle who prepares to make a left turn, and then realizes that an error has been made, is not in violation of the law by choosing to continue to the next block before making the turn. Therefore, if motor vehicle operators are not required to make a left turn if they realize their error before beginning their turn, cyclists, being accorded the same rights, are also not required to make a left turn upon realizing their error. Instead, like motor vehicle operators, they would be allowed to continue straight until reaching the next block. One thing to keep in mind, however: if you have changed your mind about turning, you may be required to resume riding near the right-hand edge of the road, depending on how far it is until your turn.
Another thing to keep in mind: It’s possible that local law prohibits cyclists from making left turns as required under New York law. If a law prohibiting left turns by cyclists has been enacted by this municipality, the officer’s order to “get out of the middle of the road” would be a lawful order enforcing the law, and you would be required to comply with the local law, which likely would require you to use the crosswalks to make your turn. On the other hand, if no local law prohibiting cyclists from making left turns has been enacted, the lawfulness of the officer’s order becomes questionable. All vehicle operators are required to obey the law, and all vehicle operators are required to obey the lawful orders of law enforcement officers. However, no order is lawful where it directs the operator of a vehicle to violate the law. Thus, if the officer was directing you to make a turn in a manner that is in violation of the law, the order is not lawful. However, if the officer was directing you to make a left turn in compliance with local law, then the order was lawful. In any event, the officer did not direct you to make a turn as a pedestrian would. Therefore, assuming that local law does not require cyclists to make turns as pedestrians would, the officer’s order to “get out of the middle of the road” probably does not amount to a lawful order, because he wasn’t directing you to make your turn as a pedestrian would—he was merely ordering you to abandon your legal right to the road.
On a penultimate note, I’d like to remind my readers that, as I’ve mentioned in my recent columns, I am currently planning a series of speaking engagements across the country in conjunction with the publication of my new book, Bicycling & the Law. I am very close to finalizing some dates for the first leg of my tour this year, and will announce those dates and locations soon. Then, beginning in 2008, I will begin an extended speaking tour across the country. If you would like me to appear to speak at your event or shop, or to your club or group, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.I’m looking forward to meeting as many of my readers as possible. Finally, I’d like to thank Sean Mellor and his co-hosts at Bicycle Radio for hosting me on October 23. That show should be available in the Bicycle Radio archives soon, for my readers who may have missed the show.