Thursday, May 1, 2008

No More Door Prizes?

Chicago aldermen rubber-stamped Daley’s proposal to fine drivers who endanger cyclists, but they want to crack down on bikes as well.

[Originally published on Gapers Block on 3/10/08:
http://gapersblock.com/detour/no_more_door_prizes/]

By John Greenfield

On Wednesday City Council’s Traffic Committee unanimously passed the mayor’s bike safety ordinance which would dock drivers $150 for several types of fouls against cyclists. The fine would jump to $500 for offences that results in a crash.

The new law covers five dangerous moves by motorists: opening a car door on a bicyclist; parking or driving in a bike lane (which forces pedalers to swerve into traffic); passing within three feet of a bike; and turning left or right into the path of a cyclist, AKA the “left hook” and “right hook.”

The unanimous approval means the ordinance will almost certainly pass when it goes before City Council on Wednesday, March 12, according to Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman Brian Steele.

“If we establish and widely publicize these ordinances, motorists will know that they risk people’s lives with this kind of behavior,” testified Ben Gomberg, the City’s Bike Program Coordinator, at the meeting.

Committee members applauded the mayor’s effort to make streets safer for cyclists but griped that more needs to be done to keep bicyclists from breaking laws. Ald. Bernie Stone (50th) said he is “absolutely delighted” to pass the ordinance and has received many calls and e-mails in support of the plan from constituents.

But Stone added that the recent death of a cyclist, struck by an SUV while he was running a red last month at Lincoln and Irving Park, highlights the need to enforce traffic codes for bikes as well. “Are we going to insist that bicycles obey the rules of the road? Yes, it’s true that a bicycle is less likely to cause a fatality but if everyone would pay attention to what they’re doing they’re wouldn’t be any fatalities.”

Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) said that he appreciates bicycling as a “a great way to travel” that aids traffic problems in his downtown ward but said cyclists, especially couriers, need to be “held accountable” for their actions. “There are many great bike messengers out there but a few bad apples are endangering public safety.”

Gomberg responded that the City’s Bike 2015 Plan includes strategies for making messengers “safer, more responsible and more popular.” The plan recommends mandatory safety training for bike couriers and selective enforcement of traffic laws by police.

The plan also proposes a crackdown on lawbreaking by the general cyclist population. “All vehicle must share the road,” said Gomberg. “Cyclists have the same responsibilities as motorists. It’s a level playing field.”

Vanessa Smith and Pilar Tena, who pedaled to the hearing, disagreed. “Cars and bicycles aren’t comparable,” said Smith, noting that a bike and rider weighs about 200 pounds while a car weighs closer to 3,000. “I think the laws should be different for bikes and cars.” She suggested that cyclists should be allowed to treat a stoplight like a stop sign, and a stop sign like a yield sign, as is currently the law in Idaho.

“It would be a downer if they start enforcing all of the traffic laws for bikes,” said Tena. “Part of the freedom and efficiency of bicycling is that you don’t have to follow the same rules as cars.”

“Stop lights are for everyone,” maintained Beth Mosher, spokesman for American Automobile Association’s Chicago chapter, “Everyone has to play by the rules of the road. The onus of safety falls on everybody: drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians.”

She was pleased to learn the safety ordinance was approved. “AAA supports this. There are too many bike and pedestrian fatalities.”

Between 2001 and 2005 there were more than 6,000 reported crashes between cars and bikes; 30 bicyclists were killed in Chicago, according to the Chicago Department of Transportation.

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