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Cyclists question whether law can be enforced

The Journal News: Cyclists question whether law designed to protect them can be enforced

Jul 13, 2012

A state law designed to protect bicyclists by requiring motorists to keep a safe distance from them when passing is not being enforced, bicycling advocates say.

A major factor may be that the legislation does not specify what a safe distance is, they say.

Merrill’s Law, which went on the books in November 2010, was named in honor of Merrill Cassell, a Greenburgh resident and avid cyclist who was struck and killed by a Westchester County bus in 2009 while riding his bike on Route 119 in Greenburgh.

The bus driver was not charged, leading state Sen. Andrea Stewart Cousins, D-Yonkers, and Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, D-Scarsdale, to propose Merrill’s Law and usher it through the Legislature. The law requires motorists to “keep a safe distance” when passing a bicycle on the same side of the road. It is an infraction.

But the problem with the law, critics say, is that it fails to say what a safe distance is. Nineteen states have laws that specifically define a safe distance as 3 feet; in Pennsylvania, it’s 4 feet.

The recent deaths of three bicyclists in Westchester and Rockland counties in the past month have some cycling advocates questioning whether police are even enforcing the law.

“I am not familiar with any prosecutions under that law,” said James B. Reed, an Elmira attorney who specializes in bike accidents and a board member of the New York Bicycling Coalition. “One of the criticisms of the law as it exists is that it doesn’t specify a safe distance.”

Kate Marshall, who organizes rides for the Westchester Cycle Club, agrees that Merrill’s Law should contain a specific distance and can’t understand why it apparently isn’t been enforced.

“I don't understand how a motorist could hit a cyclist from behind and not be ticketed for unsafe passing. I think the assumption is that the cyclist got in the way of the driver, but if it was a car hit from behind, there would be no question as to fault,” she said in an e-mail.

Reed said he was riding recently in western New York when a passing vehicle came within inches of his bicycle. He got the license plate and went to the local police.

“I thought it was a clear violation of law but, interestingly, they refused to take action because there is no specific safe distance defined,” Reed said. “They thought the law was too arbitrary. It was frustrating.”

A spokeswoman for the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office knew of no instances where the law has been applied in Westchester.

Paulin said the bill’s original language did contain a distance but said it was removed after law-enforcement officials told her it was too specific.

“They felt they would never issue a ticket based on 3 feet because they’re not going to take out a measuring stick,” she said. “We wanted the language to give them the opportunity to issue a ticket.”

Paulin said she doesn’t know if a language change is necessary to enforce the law.

“We need to emphasize to law enforcement that they need to be more diligent in issuing tickets to motorists who are not traveling safely and not paying attention to bicyclists,” she said.

The Putnam County Sheriff’s Office has issued no tickets for violations of Merrill’s Law; nevertheless, Capt. William McNamara said motorists and cyclists have equal responsibilities when riding county roads.

“Given the bucolic character of Putnam County, many of our roads are narrow and winding and in some places there are no shoulders. It is so important for safety, therefore, that drivers observe the safe passing distance rule,” McNamara said in an email. “At the same time, bicyclists must abide by the rules of the road that pertain to them just as they do to drivers. Bicyclists are required to ride as far to the right edge of the road as conditions permit, may never ride more than two abreast, and must ride in single file whenever being overtaken by a car.”

Stewart Cousins said she introduced the bill in the Senate with the 3-foot buffer but that it was removed to move the bill forward.

“We wanted to make sure the law was passed and that it would give the type of flexibility needed to protect cyclists and alert motorists,” she said. “We hoped that creating the law would raise awareness. More education (on the law) may be needed.”

The death last week of cyclist Jane Shakman, 62, of Ossining happened when a car traveling in the opposite direction cut her off, according to police. Shakman, a cyclist known as a stickler for safety, was heading west on Chappaqua Road in Briarcliff Manor on July 8 when an eastbound car driven by Valerie Naber of Briarcliff Manor cut in front of her and struck her. Shakman died despite wearing a helmet. The case remains under investigation, although police have already charged Naber, 25, with driving with a suspended license, a misdemeanor.

Shakman was the third bicyclist to die within the past month in the Lower Hudson Valley after being struck by a car. Luis Chispon, 28, a chef from Sleepy Hollow, was struck and killed by a car on the night of June 25 on Route 9 in Briarcliff Manor, and Janet Martinez, 53, from Haverstraw, was struck and killed by a car June 10 on Route 9W in Upper Grandview. Both were wearing helmets and were struck by cars traveling on their side of the road. Those deaths remain under investigation and, as of Thursday, no charges had been filed.

At a meeting earlier this month of the Orangetown Traffic Advisory Board, a relative of Martinez, town officials and members of the Rockland Bicycling Club discussed ways of making Route 9W safer.

Raymond Alicea, Martinez’s nephew, requested the state conduct a traffic study of the two-lane road, erect warning signs and lower the speed limit from 40 mph to 30 mph.

A state Department of Transportation spokeswoman said the DOT would conduct a speed, traffic and safety study along that stretch of Route 9W. In the meantime, the DOT will be installing “share the road” signs to encourage cyclists and motorists to travel safely and courteously.

Marshall, of the Westchester Cycle Club, said the recent tragedies won’t stop people from riding but has made club members realize that they have a responsibility to inform the motoring public on sharing the road.

“We have to continue to work to make cycling safer,” she said in an e-mail. “Riding with a group makes you safer — I firmly believe that —and never ride alone. I also think education is key. Our club is getting much more involved in cycling education because we believe building knowledge and skills can make us all safer. But we won’t stop riding the roads.”

Staff writer Alex Taylor contributed to this report.