Bicycle safety, laws: What’s needed? What’s reasonable?

bike safety poster

The Northfield News ran a story last week titled Road rules, bicycle style. Eric Johnson, Bruce Anderson (blogger), and Bill Ostrem (blogger)– members of the City of Northfield’s Nonmotorized Transportation Task Force (NMTTF) — are quoted in the piece.

… as more and more bicyclists and pedestrians take to the streets as a result of higher fuel prices, officials worry that they’ll see a corresponding rise in bicycle-related traffic accidents, as what recorded by Eberstein Witherite accident lawyers. It’s a dark side of bicycling of which Johnson, a member of the NMTTF, is well aware. He has been clipped by a car, shouted at and honked at.

“You can’t peacefully co-exist on the roads unless everybody is playing by the rules,” said Bruce Anderson, an avid bicyclist and member of the NMTTF. “It all gets back to education; there’s just so many things that people do that are unsafe.”

Bill Ostrem, the chair of the NMTTF, believes that a series of education programs would help mitigate crash statistics. To teach cyclists the rules of the road, Ostrem and the NMTTF hope to implement a series of bicycling safety courses in the future with the assistance of Officer Monroe and the Northfield Police Department.

Two related letters-to-the-editor subsequently appeared in the paper.

Betsy Gasior had a letter in the Sept. 6 issue:

There is, however, one glaring problem with the article, or rather, the photograph. Mr. Eric Johnson is improperly signaling his right turn. If a bicyclist chooses to signal, I’ve observed, this is the sort of signal they use. The right hand pointing haphazardly to the right or left. What am I to notice? A wad of gum? Perhaps a $5 bill the bicyclist feels I am deserving of. Maybe it’s the flock of flamingos coming down the street to their left. This is a huge safety issue.

NNMTF member (and LG tech/design guy) Sean Hayford O Leary had a letter in the Sept. 10 issue:

I was saddened and angered when I read the Sept. 2 article about the death of Terry Miller on County Road 8 (130th St), south of Dundas. Saddened, of course, because of this gruesome and untimely death. Angered because it probably could have been prevented… Rice County must stop ignoring bicycles and pedestrians when it comes to their county roads. The county should not be laying 23-foot surfaces. Ever. If they have enough traffic on them to warrant pavement, they have enough traffic that they need some kind of paved shoulder.

Back in May, the Strib ran an article titled A green light for bikers, when traffic allows.

Are Minnesotans willing to grant bicyclists limited immunity from stop signs and red lights? That question is posed by a legislative proposal introduced during Bike/Walk to Work Week earlier this month by Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, and Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan, both bikers. Their proposal is based on an Idaho statute that allows bikers to proceed though stops in certain circumstances. It would require bikers approaching a stop signal or sign to slow to a speed that allows them to stop.

They’d be required to stop if a vehicle is in the vicinity. But they could proceed through a stop sign without stopping if there’s no traffic close enough to pose a hazard while they’d be moving through the intersection. At a red light, they could also make a right turn, or a left turn onto a one-way street, without stopping. And if there’s no vehicle nearby, they could proceed through the intersection after a full stop without waiting for a green light.

I like the idea of granting bicyclists the same judgment call that we currently give motorists for right-turn-on-red turns.

28 thoughts on “Bicycle safety, laws: What’s needed? What’s reasonable?”

  1. Griff,

    According to MN statute, shouldn’t that always be right on red, AFTER stop?

    Did I miss something, and we can now blow through stop signs when making right hand turns?

    169.06.Sub D, 3(i):

    (i) Vehicular traffic facing a circular red signal alone must stop at a clearly marked stop line but, if none, before entering the crosswalk on the near side of the intersection or, if none, then before entering the intersection and shall remain standing until a green indication is shown, except as follows: (A) the driver of a vehicle stopped as close as practicable at the entrance to the crosswalk on the near side of the intersection or, if none, then at the entrance to the intersection in obedience to a red or stop signal, and with the intention of making a right turn may make the right turn, after stopping, unless an official sign has been erected prohibiting such movement, but shall yield the right-of-way to pedestrians and other traffic lawfully proceeding as directed by the signal at that intersection; or (B) the driver of a vehicle on a one-way street intersecting another one-way street on which traffic moves to the left shall stop in obedience to a red or stop signal and may then make a left turn into the one-way street, unless an official sign has been erected prohibiting the movement, but shall yield the right-of-way to pedestrians and other traffic lawfully proceeding as directed by the signal at that intersection.

  2. I really like the proposal mentioned in that Star Trib article. It’s important to realize that bikes aren’t cars, and that current laws (like that they should stop completely at stop signs) aren’t reasonable to apply and are virtually never enforced. This proposal would bring the law as it’s written in line with the law the way it’s currently enforced.

    Think about it, John: it’s a pain to stop on a bike. You lose all your momentum, and most people have to set a foot on the ground. Then pick the foot back up and start pedaling from scratch. Riding through the country, this isn’t much of an issue, but through town, it could make a ride considerably slower and more tiring.

    There’s also less risk by allowing bicyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs. If a car doesn’t notice a pedestrian and hits him, it’s a much more serious matter than if a bicyclist does.

  3. One note on that Betsy Gaisor letter to the editor: the right turn signal she is complaining about is perfectly legitimate. Unless is zooming up really fast behind a cyclist, the car should be able to see an extended right arm in time to account for it.

    In fact, doing a quick search for “bicycle safety,” I found this:

    A right-turn signal is a useful courtesy to drivers who would have to wait for you if you were going straight. Pointing with your right arm is the most effective right-turn signal.

    The key is maintaining balance, because a cyclist is definitely not safe when he or she is in a heap on the ground. I happen to be more comfortable using the Gaisor-approved left hand 90° signal, but I know a lot of people who prefer to use their right hand.

  4. One thing about making a move “when no other vehicles are present” is that sometimes a vehicle “comes out of nowhere” meaning from around an unseen corner or alleyway, or has driven up from the rear so quickly that by the time you check the rear and then turn forward again, that r b is on you like really quickly.

  5. Sean,

    that’s a great letter to the editor in the Northfield News. dead on the money. I don’t understand why the driver was not ticketed. MN law requires cars yield 3 feet when passing a cyclist.

    Griff,
    to the point of your entry. bike safety is pretty poor around here. riders need to do a better job of using common sense and obeying the law. So do drivers, but this is about cyclists.

  6. Sean,

    I have no problem with your position, and if the law gets changed, I am all for it.

    However, right now, the law is stop then turn… and a stop sign should mean stop. Drivers and cyclists need to coexist, and they need to know what to expect from each other. If neither party obeys simple traffic laws, then both parties expose themselves to a higher risk of injury.

    I extend every courtesy to cyclists whenever I can, but on the same token, all drivers and cyclists can do better.

  7. Jerry, the bicyclist who was hit by a car on Cty 8 was going East in the west bound lane following his wife who was running ahead of him and was also clipped by the vehicle. The vehicle that hit them was traveling EAST and was passing another vehicle and did not know there was a runner or biker ahead of him. The biker did not see the danger in the approaching car from behind him –and was probably not expecting to have to check since he was in the other lane.

    We absolutely need to widen our county roads to make them safer for bicyclist. The county commissioners need to hear from everyone on how their current policy of ignoring bicycling residents to “save money” is putting lives in danger.

    I am all for the law change suggested in the Star Trib–yes, cars can speed up on you quickly, but bicylists know where those bad spots are.

    Before any car-drivers complain about bikes not stopping, they should go stand at an stop-sign controlled intersection and see how many cars come to a complete stop.

    The rules should be different for these two very different types of vehicles. Go for the change.

  8. Before any car-drivers complain about bikes not stopping, they should go stand at an stop-sign controlled intersection and see how many cars come to a complete stop.

    An excellent point, Jane.

    John, I challenge you to find a single cyclist who always stops completely at every stop sign — the law is not reasonable as it stands, and the police do not enforce that law. Policy that has to be sometimes ignored to work well is not good policy.

    On the CR 8 matter, I realize the bicyclist was on the wrong side of the road and therefore it may not be reasonable to fine the driver, but I am really curious at what speed he was passing.

  9. Before any car-drivers complain about bikes not stopping, they should go stand at an stop-sign controlled intersection and see how many cars come to a complete stop.

    I think the answer would be probably less than 25%.

    And I do go to 4 way stop signs. And I do complain. And both car-drivers and cyclists are at fault…

    …and you know what… I am done wasting my breath, as this discussion is not going to change anything. I am just strongly against changing a law, just because no one obeys it.

    Sean, good luck on the NMTF, and keep fighting the good fight.

  10. John, I don’t mean to push you out of this discussion. It’s good that this is a back-and-forth dialogue, and not just bike-folks griping about the unfair law.

    Now for some of that back and forth:

    I am just strongly against changing a law, just because no one obeys it.

    The fact that nobody obeys that law is important, but it’s not the primary argument. The real issue is that it poses a significant inconvenience to bicycles and cars (since cars have to wait for bikes to get moving again), and that it’s not really necessary for safety — or not more necessary, to use Griff’s example, than waiting for a green light to turn right in a car.

  11. While walking my dog yesterday, I stepped into the crosswalk on St. Olaf Avenue yesterday at the intersection with Manitou Street when I saw a cyclist heading east approaching the intersection. I expected him to halt at the stop sign, so I started to cross the St.Olaf. However, he sailed on through, right in front of me.

    I’ve experienced the same kind of thing with autos and therefore wouldn’t have taken the risk of continuing across the street, had it been a car. Somehow, I somehow thought cyclists would be more careful.

    I think it is a cultural thing. In cities like Madison, Wisconsin or in Seattle, cars and other vehicles (including the non-motorized) are lots more vigilant about pedestrians unlike drivers and riders here (despite the state law requiring them to stop if a pedestrian is in the crosswalk).

  12. Sean… I also regret this cycler’s death. But consider this…I am a recreational cycler and have traveled nearly all the county and many ot the township roads within 10 miles of N’field, south, west, and east of the city. Paved and gravel. I have never felt it necessary to ride on the wrong side of the road…except perhaps to put space between myself and an unfriendly farm dog. Drivers have no expectation of encountering another vehicle driving in the wrong direction…it is very dangerous behavior.

    It would be great to have paved shoulders on new or reworked paved roads. I’m all for that. But in many cases they do not exist. (In some cases there are no shoulders whatsoever…gravel would be an improvment.) So if I ride, I have to be prepared for the roads as they exist. And as you probably know…if you are going to ride in the country around here…you better be prepared to ride on gravel.

    I feel perfectly safe on a gravel shoulder with a mid-width tire. It is more work for sure, and the going is slower…but not unsafe. When I got to MN, I retired my narrow racing tires and switched to a mid-size tire because I wanted to ride on gravel roads. It turned out to be a good decision in those cases when I got on some paved county and state roads that seemed too busy and the gravel shoulder became the safe alternative.

    I realize that in a perfect world that would not be necessary…cars and trucks would respect my place on every road, excepting interstates. But we’re not there yet…in MN or in any other state I’ve biked. So it becomes my responsibility to minimize the danger as it exists.

    I’d also like to say that, compared to other places I have lived, drivers here seem to be respectful of cyclists.

  13. William, I’m certainly not saying that cyclists should have the right to ride on the wrong side of the road. It was unsafe behavior, but the key item of importance to me is that if there were a shoulder there, this man would almost certainly be alive. There are deaths that occur when pedestrians and cyclists are doing everything right, too.

    Riding on a gravel shoulder is not an adequate option, if only because relatively few cyclists will actually do it. We need to assume that people will not always put themselves in the most perfectly safe situation. Bikes have a right to the paved roadbed, and they will use that right. We can make things safer for cars and cycles alike if we provide a dedicated space for that to happen.

  14. This “which side of the road to ride on” is interesting to me, because when I was a bicycling youth in Illinois, the rule was that bicyclist and car must face each other, so they were both able to make eye contact, i.e. so they both saaw each other; there was no possibility of a car coming up behind an unaware bicyclist.

    I realize that rule is different in MN , maybe it has changed everywhere … but do bicyclists really feel safer NOT being able to see what is coming up behind them, what they are going to have to share the road with?

    Regardless of which side of the road the bicyclist is on … I as a driver of a car would feel that I MUST, for both our sakes, slow down, and give them a wide berth.

  15. Kiffi,

    it is illegal and dangerous for bikes to ride against traffic. Those rules must be out of date. A cyclist should ride with traffic like a car. I believe that is the law in every state. Cars in MN are required to pass allowing 3 feet to the cyclist. Some states require 4-5 feet.

    this accident was unfortunate, I did not realize the cyclist was riding against traffic. That explains why the driver was not ticketed.

    Shoulders make everyone safer. cyclists, pedestrians and autos. imagine trying to change a flat tire on cedar ave. just north of town. It cannot be done safely without a shoulder.

  16. Kiffi,
    Personally, I would feel really exposed going against traffic. Remember, unlike a pedestrian, bikes do go fast enough that their speed makes a difference. If a bike is going 15 mph and a car 30, you’re looking at a 45 mph passing speed vs. a 15 mph passing speed. When the car’s only a feel feet away, that’s a big difference in feeling of safety. Same with 40 mph vs. 70 mph at highway speeds.

    The speed of the bike also means that a car has more time to plan passing a bike from when the driver first sees the cyclist.

  17. I think John T. has an excellent position regarding changing laws when he says, “… I am just strongly against changing a law, just because no one obeys it…” I agree wholeheartedly. I’m not so sure that more education regarding the requirements of the law will help, either. In this case, no matter how much is taught to a person, if he so chooses not to follow that instruction, he puts himself in peril. I have yet to see a non-motorized vehicle win an argument with a motorized vehicle. It just isn’t prudent to push your luck on a mixed traffic roadway.

    This gets back to enforcement. It is just not possible to have a personal law enforcement officer looking over each driver’s shoulder. There must be a change in the sense of responsibility a person must have, biker or driver, to know and obey the laws when they are operating their vehicle. Granted, wider shoulders and bike lanes can certainly help, but the responsibility still falls back onto the vehicle operator.

  18. Thanks, Jerry and Sean; I guess it is good that I have a old skiing knee injury that keeps me from riding a bike now, as it might be hard to break what was a previous habit.

    Why can’t we plan and facilitate the use of more bicycle riding when gas/car travel is so increasingly expensive and environmentally costly?

    Where do you find the point of resistance?

    How do you feel about the latest road reconstruction in NF?

    I guess that would be Woodley (east); I remember Bruce Anderson coming back to the council many times with very solid documentation, but not a totally successful result… Will the West end of Woodley be better?

  19. Kiffi, I liked the bicycling facing opposite direction, too. I don’t like being a driver of a car passing a bike on narrow or stone ridden paths. I am always afraid the bike will take a spill and slide off in front of my car. I know, it’s irratinal and unlikely, but still, I am conditioned by so many bikers cutting around here like bees on the wing.

  20. The accicent on Cty 8 that killed the cyclist would not have occurred if he had been traveling with traffic. Going against traffic killed him.

  21. Jane, we can’t know that. This driver was apparently so blinded by the sun that he couldn’t see two people right in front of him. Why would he have been more likely to see the guy if he were on the right side of the road? Though I strongly believe cyclists should travel on the correct side of the road, this accident just as easily could have happened if Mr. Miller were doing everything right. The problem is that the road is simply too narrow to accommodate a cyclist and two cars. That’s not acceptable.

    It’s possible this accident wouldn’t have occurred if he were following the rules, but it’s almost definite that it wouldn’t have happened if the road were designed to accommodate nonmotorized uses.

    Kiffi, I’ll answer one of your questions:

    How do you feel about the latest road reconstruction in NF?

    This is an opportunity for me to be positive: we’re doing much better than we once were. The NMTTF had its issues with East Woodley (actually before I was on the TF), but the reconstructed road will still be much, much better than it is today. The new 5th Street from Water-Washington will better accommodate bicyclists. The Hwy 3 reconstruction through downtown was a major improvement by adding bike lanes and sidewalks on both sides. And we’re no longer seeing residential streets being built without sidewalks (Roosevelt Drive — a major residential street near three schools with no sidewalk on either side — is a particularly strong example of what we no longer do).

    I’d really like to see an improvement on West Woodley, though I imagine that’s more complicated since it’s part of MN-246, whereas East Woodley was just county and Northfield.

  22. I was also taught to ride on the left side of the street on a bike when growing up in both TX and CA. Griff and I had several disagreements on this issue when talking to our kids about bike safety.

    My beliefs changed instantly when I was driving forward, not backing, out of my driveway and checked for traffic as usual. Looked right, left, right again, then looking left… started to pull forward when a kid on a bike, riding on the left side of the street, against traffic suddenly appeared infront of me. My heart stopped and I could see that people do not expect traffic to be coming from the right when pulling out of a driveway. Your visual check is farther out in front in the far lane. I think the bike was hidden by my side mirror and right up close to the curb… it sure was an unexpected event and changed my mind about the safety of left side riding. Rear view mirrors for bikes are not expensive and well worth the investment.

  23. I hear you, Robbie. It isn’t safe to pull out of a garage anywhere around here.
    My neighbors who have about 8 kids between them, allow their kids to ride and play on the driveways and then complicate that by the fact there is a van parked all day right where I pull out, so I can’t see them coming at all. Those kids back yard is a city park with all sorts of basketball, playground, hard surfaces and gazebo, trash bins and yet, there they are riding back and forth in my driveway.

    Now, the neighbors don’t speak to me cuz I asked them to stay off my driveway when two of the kids were playing “knock the kid off the bike by sticking a stick into the spokes” on my driveway! You remember that game, don’t you?, she (meaning me) asked sarcastically. I didn’t even use words, I just knocked and pointed from my window. That was two years ago. They still appear on my driveway about every time I check.

    I think that bikes and skateboarders should have permits and take tests and be aware of the fact that they are very vulnerable to road conditions and weather, and sunlight and drivers. It’s really kinda of more important these days with increased traffic.

    Back a few months ago, I talked about how in Chicago, messengers speed dash around in full traffic in downtown Chicago all day long, it’s really thick there, peds and vehicles alike, with tons of new people not knowing what the flow is, and yet these messengers do so well overall..I thought it was not
    too important to regulate bikes. But, I have noticed that the more space you give people, like around here, as opposed to downtown Chicago where a million people come into work each day in a square mile…the more room you give people, the more they do what they want. This is true in Tulsa, too. There is plenty of room to goof up and so people loosen up their perimeters. In Chicago, if you loosen up that much, you will get hit, no question about it…well, so, I exaggerate to make the point.

  24. Sean, you are right. I don’t think the rider was breaking any rules-he was doing what he though was the safest, and the passing motorist thought he was doing the safe thing–it is just that going against traffic does not make you safer. I have spent my lifetime riding my bike with traffic, and I find it to be very safe as long as you use good judgment–just like car drivers. I don’t think the answer is to change the driving rules to going against traffic–or riding on sidewalks–that just causes pedestrian/bike problems.

    If we had decent shoulders on the road, we would have safer biking. Jefferson Road and Jefferson Parkway were both designed without a thought to safe bike riding–we should be able to do better than that.

    We need to let our government know that we want better, safer planning of roads to include bicycle accomodation. State as well as city and county.

    Yes, it will be somewhat more expensive to plan for bike shoulders, but in the long run it will save us transportation money in that more people will be able to bike safely–including students to schools.

    Our love affair with the gas-guzzling auto should not be allowed to prevent alternative transportation, like the common use of bicycling.

    I am all for licensing and testing to help citizens become better bike riders–but it should be reasonable and not used to exclude students and those with financial challenges.

  25. I know this is really reaching back into the history of LoGroNo… but I have a real question about bike and auto rules.

    When there is a bike lane along side parallel parking… and you are approaching a corner…. to turn RIGHT. You will be crossing both the bike lane and the space for parking. Normally… you pull to the right if there isn’t a car there so you can make the turn. What do you do when there is a bike lane you will have to cross to do that. Do you turn from the lane you are in with out pulling to the right. What if there is a bike in that lane… obviously you don’t pull to the right then but if there isn’t a bike in the bike lane… ?? I know what it courteous but what is the law?

  26. Robbie — great question. Bill Ostrem and I have struggled with this, and the answer is not extremely clear. Page 67 on the Mn/DOT bikeway manual implies that right-turning traffic, lacking a marked right turn lane, would not have a negotiation before the intersection. At the intersection, right-turning traffic should yield to bikes going straight.

    The design of the particular bikeway affects this. For example, the two blocks of 5th St. with bike lanes allow parking fairly close to the corner, discouraging people from using that space as a turning area. For the northbound lane at 2nd St and the southbound lane at 5th St on the Hwy 3 bike lanes, the optimal design is used: a right-turn lane to the right of the bike lane. In this case, traffic must yield to bikes as it enters the turn lane, but does not need to worry about bikes while actually turning.

    A related note: when riding on shoulders that become turn lanes, bicycles should move left into the straight-moving lane (e.g., if riding on the shoulder on Division St at Jefferson Pkwy). Bicycles need only exit the bike lane for left turns.

  27. It is my perception, especially on 5th, that if you are a car, you make your right turn from the lane at the stop sign. You DO NOT cross the bike lane or move through it to the parking portion to make the right hand turn.

    If a bike is there, you yield to the bike, let them clear the lane, then make your right hand turn… making sure you signal your intentions.

    The intent is not to cut off a cyclist… and not put them in your blind spot when making your turn.

    A properly marked right turn lane example would be on HWY 3 at second, heading northbound. There is a dotted area in the bike lane for vehicles to pass through.

    So, it is my perception that cutting through the bike lane on 5th to make a right is not proper.

    Maybe we can ask the Chief for his opinion?

    Just my guess.

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