2016 Kalamazoo tragedy sparks legislative action.
To put it mildly, legislation to make Michigan a better and safer place for bicyclists has never been a priority for Michigan lawmakers. Those who have worked to advance bicycle laws have proposed common sense legislation for years. While a minority of state lawmakers seemed sympathetic to our cause, they were frank in telling us that our issues where not going to be a priority to those in control of Michigan’s legislative agenda. Other law makers thought they were being supportive when they told us, “if we just fix the potholes, wouldn’t that make cyclists happy?” And, of course, from a significant number of state representatives and senators we heard, “cyclists shouldn’t be able to use the road because they don’t pay taxes” and other comments that showed a blatant hostility toward our issues.
Then, in 2016, Michigan received national attention after a pickup truck crashed into a group of cyclists in Kalamazoo, killing five people and seriously injuring four others. With Michigan under the microscope reports surfaced that Michigan was one of the least safe places to ride a bicycle. It had one of the nation’s highest cycling fatality rates and it was also one of the only states that didn’t a safe passing law. Even to those that didn’t ride a bicycle, it seemed clear that it was time to pass laws to make Michigan a safer place for people who ride bikes.
Shortly after the Kalamazoo tragedy, I recall meeting with a state Senator, who in 2015 told me that cyclists should be happy if lawmakers simply fixed the potholes, and there was a dramatic change. The Senator was suddenly passionate about the need for a safe passing law – one that would go beyond the 3 foot law in most states, a law that required motorists to give cyclists 5 feet when passing a bicycle on Michigan’s roads. The legislation was promptly introduced, unanimously passed in committee, and overwhelmingly passed by the full Michigan Senate. However, there was no interest from the Michigan House leadership to advance the legislation and it died at the end of the 2015-2016 legislative session.
Fortunately, the desire to pass pro-cycling legislation continued into the 2017-2018 Michigan legislative session. A number of bipartisan lawmakers renewed their efforts to pass laws that would make Michigan a better, and safer, place for cyclists. As a result of the work of these lawmakers, and the efforts of the League of Michigan Bicyclists (LMB), in a roughly 11 month span, during the 2017-2018 legislative session, 4 pro-bicycle laws were passed. The following is a summary of each law, with a link to a more detailed analysis of each law which includes an inside look at how the laws came to be passed.
E-Bike Laws – These new statutes define e-bikes, create three classes of e-bikes, and create rules regarding the use of each e-bike class. Specific information about the e-bike law can be found at here.
Obstructed License Plates – An amendment was made to existing provision in the Michigan Vehicle Code that makes it clear that “the attachment to the rear of a vehicle of a tow ball, bicycle rack, removable hitch, or any other device designed to carry an object on the rear of a vehicle, including the object being carried” does not violate the law, even if it obstructs a license plate. More detailed information about this change in the law, and what lead to the need for the change can be found at here.
Safe Passing Law – An amendment was made to the Michigan Vehicle Code which requires “The driver of a vehicle overtaking a bicycle proceeding in the same direction shall, when otherwise permitted by this section, pass at a distance of 3 feet to the left of that bicycle or, if it is impracticable to pass the bicycle at a distance of 3 feet to the left, at a safe distance to the left of that bicycle at a safe speed.” The law also gives motorists the ability to cross a double yellow line to safely pass bicycles, when it is safe to do so. The law is far from perfect. To understand why the law is among the weakest passing laws in the country, but the best Michigan cyclists could hope to obtain given political realities, see here.
Driver Education Law – An amendment was made to existing driver education laws mandating that all driver education programs provide “not less than 1 hour of information concerning the laws pertaining to bicycles, motorcycles, and other vulnerable roadway users, including pedestrians, and shall emphasize awareness of their operation on the streets, roads, and highways of this state. The laws of this state pertaining to awareness of bicycles, motorcycles, and other vulnerable roadway users, including pedestrians, shall also be incorporated into other subject areas of the curriculum where appropriate.” Many cyclists are understandably upset that the requirement is for only 1 hour on bicycle safety issues and that this one hour needs to be shared with motorcycles, pedestrians, and other vulnerable roadway users. To understand why more time was not devoted specifically to bicycle awareness and safety, read here.
The 2017-2018 Legislative Session was the most successful legislation Michigan bicycle advocates have seen. Although we didn’t get everything we wanted, we saw positive changes on all four legislative priorities that the LMB set at the beginning of the 2017.
Now, it is time to look forward and plan for 2019 and 2020. What should our legislative priorities be during the next two years? There is obviously much more work that needs to be done and here are some of the potential issues cyclists may want to work to advance:
(1) Vulnerable roadway user law – creates enhanced penalties for motorists that kill or injure a cyclist or other vulnerable roadway user, similar to existing laws that create enhanced penalties for motorists that kill or injure police or road workers.
(2) Improve safe passing law – as noted above, we now have a safe passing law, but it is far from ideal. Some would argue it is almost worthless. At a minimum, the law should delete the sentence that allows for less than 3 feet in situations where it is “not practicable” to do so.
(3) Idaho Stop – Allows cyclists to slow and roll through stop signs. In 1982, Idaho adopted the law and since that time, there have been no known accidents as a result of the law.
(4) Distracted Driving – Laws that provide strict prohibitions on driving while using handheld devices and enhanced penalties when their use contributes to an injury or death.
(5) Dead Red – Some traffic signals only work when they detect a vehicle at the intersection. Dead red laws that allow cyclists to proceed through a red light, after they are stopped at an intersection for a complete light cycle and/or when there are malfunctioning signals.
Please make your voice heard. Share your thoughts with me by sending an email to [email protected], join and become active in the LMB or other bicycle advocacy groups, and join us at the State Capitol for Bicycle Advocacy Day, which typically occurs in late May.