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Why Not Share the Road?

The Mobile Press-Register: Why Not Share the Road? (Insight)

Published: Sunday, November 06, 2011
By Press-Register Editorial Board

By ELLEN BROACH
Special to the Press-Register

Recent discussions in the Mobile area about whether cyclists should have the right to ride on roads reveal attitudes that continue to be issues for local city planners.

The arguments show a range of awareness about the legal rights and responsibilities of cyclists, motorists and recreational agencies that promote cycling, and an accompanying range of underlying beliefs about roads and their use.

However, the bottom line is that cyclists have a right to the road. So the tensions between the value of the wide open road and the necessity of paying attention to another person’s safety are at stake when bicyclists and motorists attempt to share the road.

As a recreational bicyclist and one who teaches bicycle safety, when I read blogs on the subject I frequently note challenges that come from inadequate knowledge of the laws.

Part of the confusion on what is the law comes from states and cities adopting different rules.

For example, the state of Alabama doesn’t have stop sign/light allowances like some other states. As motorists are frequently angry that bicycles fail to stop at stop signs, this kind of difference among state laws only adds to the confusion.

Similarly, Mobile, Auburn and 20 other states require a car to wait, when passing a bicycle, until it can safely pass and keep 3 feet away from the cyclist. When different laws are articulated state by state (or city by city), it reduces effective communication of the rules of the road.

Another problem is that our current driver’s licensing system does not have a way of consistently checking in with drivers and bicyclists to inform them of changes in the rules of the road.

When a person first applies to drive, he or she is required to pass both a written and a driving test before being awarded a license. An eye exam is the only potential requirement if a person then renews his or her license before it expires.

So, it’s feasible that a person who is 55 might have never looked at the rules of the road again since he or she was 15.

While the ideal motorist would perhaps check in from time to time to see if the rules have shifted, nothing in the current system encourages this kind of attentiveness. Therefore, many who drive and ride bicycles, including college students in my classroom, have never been exposed to any rules about bike safety.

For both the state vehicle guides and the recreation agencies that promote cycling, more elaborate guidelines and interventions are necessary. This might include a range of strategies, including cycling education in schools (to communicate the rules and the safety regulations).

Part of the challenge comes from a set of national values about the right to travel in automobiles. We like our speed, and we like the idea of a wide open road, where traffic isn’t a problem. A bicycle on the road slows motorists down and requires a different level of vigilance than most want when driving.

On the other hand, riding a bike for transportation is considered by many as a tribute to some of the basic ideas upon which this country was founded such as common sense, self-reliance and closeness with the land.

But when laws are understood, and when both bicyclists and motorists have a stronger grasp of both the legal rights and the social “rights,” we may see fewer signs of frustration from both groups.

Dr. Ellen Broach is a certified therapeutic recreation specialist and an associate professor in the Department of Health, Physical Education and Leisure Studies at the University of South Alabama.