By: Catherine C. Nguyen, Esq.
Many people use their bikes as a main form of transportation to get to work, to school, or as a form of exercise. Some pedal to save the environment. Some do it in response to rising gas prices. Others do it to stave off obesity. Whatever their reasons for pedaling, Pennsylvania law grants bicycles full use of the road as though they were another motor vehicle under 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3501 et. seq. Many bicyclists take full advantage of this allowance and have been spotted on various roads decked out in reflective gear and waving their arms around to signal impending turns. As often as we see these bicyclists, we also see cars zipping past them on one lane roads at high rates of speed and coming so close that both operators could probably reach out and touch each other. Motor vehicle operators are taught to look out for other motor vehicles and pedestrians at crosswalks, but many are not aware of what is proper etiquette for sharing the road with bicyclists.
In those instances of careless passing or inattention, a bicyclist could become seriously injured and often with little consequence to the motor vehicle operator. For instance, take the very recent case of Frank Pavlick, a bicyclist who was pedaling on the Fahy Bridge in Bethlehem, PA. Mr. Pavlick was struck from behind by a motor vehicle which then attempted to flee the scene. If not for the quick thinking of two Good Samaritans, the motor vehicle operator would have gotten away completely with little property damage and zero bodily injury. Fortunately, Mr. Pavlick did not sustain serious injuries, but the same cannot be said of another bicyclist who was hit on that same bridge four months earlier. Patrick Ytsma, who was hit in December 2011, died from massive head trauma after being struck from behind by a woman driving a car. Serious injuries aren’t just the result of direct collisions. A bicyclist clipped by a car’s mirror can sustain a broken elbow or a fractured leg from impacting the ground. A motor vehicle operator might not even be aware that he brushed a bicyclist. Bicyclists all over the country have been lobbying ceaselessly for stricter laws that would make inattentive drivers keep their eyes on the road and looking out for them.
This is not to say that motorists don’t have their complaints against bicyclists. They ask why a bicyclist needs to ride in the middle of the road and slow down traffic. Sometimes, it’s just not feasible to pass a bicyclist because there are parked cars, traffic, or fire hydrants in the way, and the motorist is forced to idle behind the bicyclist until the road ends or it’s safe to pass. They also ask why the law should give bicyclists more rights when bicyclists barely follow the law themselves. They point to instances where bicyclists have run red lights and stop signs, have cut off cars, and have woven in and out of pedestrian crowds, seemingly without a care and without accountability. There are plenty of aggrieved motorists who perceive bicyclists as nothing more than lawless road-hogging fiends who simply keep demanding more road rights without yielding any consideration themselves.
Pennsylvania recently enacted a new law for the safety of bicyclists. The “Safe Passing Law” requires motorists to keep a four feet safety cushion around them and the bicycles. It also prohibits “right hooks” and “left hooks,” terms used to describe the passing of a bicyclist in order to make an immediate turn. Most importantly, motor vehicles are now permitted to cross the center yellow line in order to pass a bicyclist if it is safe to do so. Violation of this law is a summary offense that carries a $25 fine and court costs.
Motorists and bicyclists have a long way to go before they can comfortably share the road with each other. The Safe Passing Law is a step in the right direction to make Pennsylvania a more bicycle friendly state. Prior to this law, Pennsylvania was severely lacking in laws that protected bicyclists, resulting in its rank as the 8th worst state for bicycle friendliness in 2010. Perhaps we will be seeing more strides toward bicycle-friendliness in the future.