Proposal would try to protect cyclists

BY SHAWN GUDE | MARCH 10, 2009 7:27 AM

UI graduate student Jessie Grafenberg has seen it all too often.

An oblivious driver, looking to make a right turn at a red light, narrowly avoids barreling into her as she waits on her black-and-red Quintana Roo bicycle in the shoulder lane.

Drawing from such experiences, she counts herself as a supporter of a bill in the Iowa Legislature that would give Iowa bikers additional protections.

“I think that the biker bill is definitely needed,” Grafenberg, the vice president of the UI’s TriHawks Triathlon club, wrote in an e-mail. “Many Iowa drivers are unaware of the rules of the road when it comes to dealing with bikers. These protections are needed for future bikers because several accidents happen every year.”

The measure includes myriad alterations to current law, including prohibiting drivers from limiting bicyclists’ use of the bike lane, mandating drivers give bikers at least 5 feet of space when passing, and giving more options to bikers when using hand signals. Violators would receive fines, with penalties increasing if their behavior caused serious injury or death.

Many of the provisions add safety stipulations that are already in place for motor vehicles or pedestrians.

Fellow TriHawks Triathlon member Kimberly Beck also voiced support for the proposal.

“Extra protections are always needed for cyclists,” Beck, the club’s president, wrote in an e-mail. “While there are many drivers who are very considerate toward cyclists on the road, there are far too many who pay far too little attention to the cyclists.”

For Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, the bill is an attempt to promote “better sharing of the roads by motorists and bicyclists.”

Last year, there were five fatalities statewide involving bicyclists and motor vehicles, according to the Iowa Department of Transportation’s Motor Vehicle Division. Previous years have seen similar numbers: There were seven deaths in 2007, five in 2006, and five in 2005.

Rep. Nick Wagner, R-Marion, contended the bill should be part of a broader effort to educate both drivers and bikers about traffic laws and safety.

“I think there are some parts that could be a good step forward and hopefully bring about some of that discussion,” said Wagner, a member of the subcommittee considering the bill. “And through the discussion, there’s more education.”

But he also expressed reservations about some “common-sense” stipulations in the bills, which he felt would be difficult to enforce, including limiting the opening of doors on the moving traffic side of the road. The subjective provision would bar drivers from keeping doors “open longer than necessary to load or unload passengers or cargo.”

Senate Republicans voted overwhelmingly against the measure, with some, such as Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, citing the perceived impracticality of the bill.

“Why do we have to legislate common sense?” he said, also pointing to the open-door provision. “Do we have a runners bill of rights? Do we have a pedestrian bill of rights? … Where do we stop?”

Still, the measure has relatively wide backing, especially after a provision that would have prohibited local authorities from restricting bicycle use on streets or highways was dropped before the Senate approved the bill late last month, 30-17. Post-amendment, the Iowa State Association of Counties dropped its opposition and now remain neutral.

The House bill’s subcommittee is scheduled to meet this afternoon.

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