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Safe-passing ordinance is about changing behavior

The San Antonio Express: Safe-passing ordinance is about changing behavior

Sometimes it takes a tragedy to move a community to change its ways. How many will it take in San Antonio?

City Council today is set to vote on a safe-passing ordinance that could make roads safer for bicyclists, joggers and other “vulnerable road users.” The ordinance, approved by a City Council committee last month, would require drivers to change lanes to avoid vulnerable road users when possible, or give them three feet of clearance. The language in the ordinance mirrors what state lawmakers approved last year, only to have Gov. Rick Perry veto it at the last minute.

Perry at the time argued that the state transportation code already provides safeguards. When city staff proposed a narrower ordinance to the council committee, Mike Burns, the deputy chief in charge of SAPD’s traffic section offered a similar plea. Burns’ remarks later were nullified by Chief William McManus but the assertion is common that existing laws sufficiently protect bicyclists and pedestrians.

Someone should try selling that one to Kylie Bruehler.

The 7-year-old’s parents, Gregory and Alexandra Bruehler, were hit by a pickup and killed in October as they rode their tandem bicycle on the shoulder of Texas 16 north of town. The case remains under review by the Bexar County district attorney’s office, but history suggests charges are unlikely.

In San Antonio, drivers who hit pedestrians or bicyclists rarely face legal consequences, even when the injured or deceased have followed the rules, as Express-News writer Colin McDonald recently reported. Bicycle advocates say the pattern is repeated throughout the state.

Robin Stalling, executive director of BikeTexas, says the line of reasoning for the lack of prosecution goes like this: “If we can’t win, we’re not going to try to prosecute. And if we’re not going to prosecute, police officers aren’t going to write the tickets.”

An exception would be Monday’s indictment of Philip Smith, the driver who police say struck and killed Dr. Michael Sanchez with his SUV in January 2009 as the doctor jogged on the shoulder of a Northwest Side road.

While the local ordinance would call for a maximum fine of $200, no one’s looking at this as a revenue-making opportunity for the city, much less as a stick with which to hit drivers. San Antonio police issue tickets only if they witness an accident or a moving violation.

An ordinance calling for, essentially, safer driving habits, is about education. It’s about changing behavior. And it’s about changing callous attitudes toward anyone who isn’t riding in a 3,000-pound metal box.

So what if bicyclists or joggers are using the roads for recreation rather than commuting? San Antonio has an abysmal obesity rate and more of us would do well to pedal or hoof it. Who pays the freight? In large part, local taxes pay for local streets, and, with particular regard to bicyclists, the state transportation code is clear that they have every right to use them.

If the ordinance won’t change minds and hearts, maybe this will: the image of little Kylie falling asleep at night with a pair of two-foot teddy bears that a family friend crafted out of the Bruehlers’ clothes. One is the daddy bear. The other one is the mommy.