Thursday, May 1, 2008

Safety Dance: A New Bike Safety Ordinance

Chicago’s reckless driving ordinance is on the books. Now City Hall is considering a crackdown on bicyclists

Originally published on Gapers Block 3/13/07:

By John Greenfield

On Wednesday, March 12, City Council gave the final OK to Mayor Daley’s bike safety ordinance which will slap motorists who endanger cyclists with $150 fines. The penalty jumps to $500 if a crash occurs.

Five risky moves by drivers are now verboten: Turning into a cyclist’s path (AKA the “left hook” and “right hook”); parking or driving in a bike lane; passing within three feet of a pedaler; and opening a car door on a bicyclist (AKA the “door prize.”)

“This really represents a continuation of what the mayor and CDOT have been trying to accomplish for the past 15 years: making streets safer for cyclists,” said Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman Brian Steele.

Bicyclists and motorists alike cheered the new law. “This is very positive,” said bike courier Seth Chambers, “It’s a great idea.” A three-year veteran of the Loop’s mean streets, he once suffered a shattered arm when a car smashed into him while making a left turn. “Obviously this is a big issue for me.”

“We think it’s great news that the ordinance passed,” said Beth Mosher from the American Automobile Association’s local chapter. “This is going to go a long way in keeping everyone safe on the roadway.”

“We really like that this ordinance tells motorists they need to show due diligence to bikes on the road,” said Chicagoland Bicycle Federation’s Rob Sadowsky. While he said traffic laws are hard to enforce, he feels the ordinance will be a godsend to cyclists who get hurt by cars.

Sadowsky broke his elbow four years ago when a passenger exiting a cab kicked the door open into a bike lane. In the ensuing lawsuit the defense argued Sadowsky should have been riding as close to the right as possible.

“This ordinance clearly states that by riding in a bike lane I was operating my vehicle appropriately,” said Sadowsky. “With this ordinance in place my case would have settled six months earlier.”

City Council passed the law unanimously with no debate. But during discussion of the ordinance at a Traffic Committee hearing a week earlier, several aldermen called for cracking down on dangerous bicyclists as well.

“How many of ‘em are stopping at stop lights?” asked Ald. Willie Cochrane (20th). “How many of ‘em are stopping at stop signs? How many of ‘em are putting up their hands when it’s time to make a turn? Those are serious issues.”

Ben Gomberg, Chicago’s Bike Program Coordinator, responded that the City is exploring ways to increase compliance, including increased ticketing of cyclists. One strategy recommended by Chicago’s Bike 2015 Plan is: “Develop and implement an enforcement program targeting particularly dangerous bicycling.”

Although the bicycle federation was contracted to help write the bike plan, Rob Sadowsky said his group differs with the City on the issue of traffic citations for cyclists. “We do not endorse using few and precious police resources to target behavior that is relatively insignificant. Inattentive and reckless drivers are causing fatalities – that’s where our resources should go.”

“We don’t believe it’s a waste of police resources to enforce laws designed to ensure the safety of public way users,” responded CDOT’s Brian Steele. He added that the City also works to spread the word about safe cycling with education programs like Mayor Daley’s Bicycling Ambassadors, outreach specialists who appear at schools, parks and special events.

A crackdown on bicyclists would be a step in the wrong direction, said Michael Burton from the transportation advocacy group Break the Gridlock. “I think it’s mostly hype, this idea of a bicycle menace. What’s the incidence of bicyclists hitting pedestrians or drivers? Where are the injuries or fatalities?”

In contrast, Burton said, cars kill an average of 40,000 Americans a year. “When a car hits a cyclist or another driver or jumps a curb and kills a pedestrian it’s not even considered news anymore,” he said.

“If more people biked instead of clogging the roads with cars we’d have safer streets,” said Burton. “So we should be working to make life easier for bicyclists instead of ticketing them.”

The March 12 City Council meeting started on a decidedly pro-bicycle note as local politicians honored former alderman Leon Despres, a legendary South Side progressive and cycling enthusiast, on his 100th birthday.

As Despres looked on, Mayor Daley credited the Hyde Parker with bringing bicycling issues to the forefront for the current generation. “You’re a great bike rider,” said the mayor.

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