Guest Column

When Did Safety Become a Partisan Issue?

For the past three legislative sessions, Montana bicyclists have introduced bicycle safety legislation, and in all three sessions, our lawmakers have voted it down

By Bill Schneider

Would everybody opposed to safety please raise their hands?

What? Nobody opposed to safety?

That’s what you normally would expect because everybody supports safety, correct? I only wish that was true in Montana because if you were sitting in the gallery of the capital building during any of the last three legislative sessions in Helena, you would look down and see mostly raised hands on the Republican side of the aisle and none on the democratic side.

I’m not sure when or how or why safety – in this case, bicycle safety –became a partisan issue, but in Montana, it has somehow de-evolved into this depressing reality.

For the past three legislative sessions, Montana bicyclists have introduced bicycle safety legislation, and in all three sessions, our lawmakers have voted it down with opposition coming almost exclusively from Republicans. They apparently do not want bicyclists to be safe on our streets and highways.

I can’t prove this, but I’m confident in saying that Republicans ride bicycles. Certainly, their children do, and all parents want to keep their children safe. I’ve been riding my bicycles on the streets, roads and trails of Montana for more than 50 years and have lots of cycling friends, and I know for an absolute fact that they are not all Democrats. Bicycling is not a liberal plot.

We bicyclists aren’t asking our legislators to tilt the universe for us. We just want to codify basic safety practices into Montana law to promote safe, peaceful sharing of our roadways. For example, bicyclists always prefer to be seen than viewed, so we like requirements for red flashing rear lights when riding at night and highly visible, reflective clothing at all times, safety measures commonly employed by many – but regrettably, not all – bicyclists.  Most of all, however, we wish for a safe passing distance of five feet between our bicycle and the motor vehicles speeding past us. Is that too much to ask?

When there is a collision between a bicycle and a motor vehicle, we all know who loses. We know who is the windshield and who is the bug.

A safe passing law is so critical because many motorists still believe they can pass a bicyclist without crossing over the center line. They don’t understand that sharing the road is not sharing the lane. There is simply not enough space in a standard traffic lane for a bicycle and a speeding motor vehicle. Sharing the road but not the lane is common-sense protocol in most of the world, but clearly, not in Montana. If we can codify a safe passing distance, it can become engrained in driver’s education programs, the driver’s manual and driver’s license tests, gradually becoming accepted safe driving behavior.

In Montana, it’s even legal to briefly cross a double-yellow line to pass a bicyclist as long there is no oncoming traffic. Again, many motorists don’t know this is legal, safe, sensible, courteous and defensive driving behavior.

Motorists would never try to pass a slow-moving motorcycle in the same lane, but they way-too-often do it with bicycles, even though a bicycle and a motorcycle take up about the same space and both are legally classed as vehicles and both have the right to use the entire lane.

Sadly, in Montana, there also seems to be a cultural aspect to this safety dilemma. When approaching a bicyclist from behind, many motorists feel scorn or anger and somehow have come to believe that they should not be inconvenienced by having to share the road and slow down for a few seconds, possibly to wait for oncoming traffic to clear. Instead, they might try to pass in the same lane. Very bad idea. Very unsafe driving behavior. Very dangerous for the bicyclist.

When motorists come up behind a slow-moving farm tractor, they don’t feel scorn or anger. They calmly wait for traffic to clear and move the other lane to make a safe, courteous pass. If only they would consider bicycles the same as tractors. Basically and legally, they are the same thing, slow-moving vehicles with as much right to be on the road as any other vehicle.

So, Republican lawmakers who raised your hand, you’ll have another chance. In the next legislative session, when you have an opportunity to vote on bicycle safety, please vote yes. And constituents, please encourage your legislators to do the right thing because we all support safety.

Bill Schneider is a retired publisher living in Helena as well as an  avid cyclist who has been active in several bicycling organizations.

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