New laws in Tennessee and Georgia designed to help protect bicyclists from incautious drivers are a good thing. They will raise awareness that drivers are responsible for giving cyclists ample room for safe passage. And they should help build the civic ethic of sharing public roads.
But as predictably as the sun rises, we will receive complaints that giving cyclists clearer rights to use public roads — and raising the penalties for drivers who violate their space or cause them bodily harm — may lead to more accidents in which bicyclists are injured.
This attitude speaks volumes about the need for enforcement of tougher laws that define bicyclists’ rights and drivers’ liability for causing them injuries.
Lacking dedicated bicycle lanes, riders too frequently bicycle on the edge of lanes in hazardous hope that drivers will give them the legal 3-feet of clearance while passing them. This generous behavior commonly tempts drivers to pass them by shaving their 3-foot-safety zone or ignoring it altogether. Some drivers will pass cyclists too closely anywhere, even on blind curves, risking their lives by pushing them into hazardous falls off the road.
This is precisely what the 3-foot-safety law in Georgia — a law already in place in Tennessee — is meant to avoid. In fact, it’s arguably safer for bicyclists to ride more to the middle of the lane in order to force drivers to wait for sight-line clearance to pass them legally and safely in the oncoming lane.
Tennessee’s new law serves well by raising the legal penalties for abusing bicyclists’ 3-foot safety zone, or for hitting a bicyclist or causing them injury.
It should be clear to drivers that bicyclists have equal legal rights to use public roads and should be given the same safe clearance that drivers give other drivers. Indeed, cyclists deserve safer margins because of their vulnerability to serious injury or death in the event of a wreck.