Monday, December 21, 2009

Austin's Vulnerable Law

The city of Austin, Texas (my old burg) has decided to right the wrongs of the emperor governor of its state and has enacted a three-foot vehicle clearance law to bicyclists and pedestrians. You can read more about it and see a local telecast on this topic here. (Even better, commercial vehicles must maintain a 6-foot clearance.) This is great news, and not just because Governor Rick Perry has to obey this law to get to work (although there is some delicious irony going on here).

When I was in the Austin area around Thanksgiving, I paid a visit to some friends (I will call them Mr. and Mrs. J) who live in the suburbs outside town. We had a great visit, and it was good to see them. And the suburb in which they live is beautifully planned, with linear parks and bike paths. The visit pointed out to me the distance between people who see bicycles as recreational devices and those who see them as transportation. I mean, I recognize the value of hike-and-bike trails, particularly for people who aren't ready to undertake a 10- to 20-mile commute.

While my friends and I were visiting, Mrs. J expressed to me her exasperation about the "social engineering" that the Austin City Council was undertaking in the new bike ordinance and (not knowing that I had a blog where I write about Practical Cycling) opined that bicyclists belong on the paths and not on the road. I judiciously held my tongue (and since Mr. J. was aware of the situation, there was no need to rock the boat). Mrs. J. did bring up an interesting point about the law, expressed as an objection to scofflaw cyclists (she and I are on the same page there) and asked rhetorically, "What happens if I'm stopped at a light and a cyclist comes up right next to me? Am I breaking the law?"

I thought it was a fair question, and looked up the wording of the ordinance. You can download a copy here. It's supposedly identical to the wording of the law that the Texas Legislature passed virtually unanimously and that Rick Perry vetoed (you can't fault the Austin City Council for failing to take advantage of other legislators' work.)

It's well written. It does the following:
  • Defines a class of "Vulnerable Road User" ("VRUs" include cyclists);
  • Directs that motorists shall vacate a lane used by a VRU if there are two or more lanes going in a direction;
  • Directs that motorists shall pass the VRU at a safe distance otherwise;
  • Defines "safe distance" (3 feet for a private vehicle, 6 feet for a truck or commercial vehicle);
  • Directs that motorists shall yield ROW to VRUs when making left turns;
  • Directs that motorists may not overtake and turn right in front of VRUs unsafely;
  • Directs that motorists may not use their vehicles to threaten or intimidate a VRU;
Hm. It goes quite a bit beyond clearances, it really succinctly tries to address the major hazard facing bicyclists. Although it's concisely written, it's a straightforward, good law, and Mrs. J's concerns for "motorists' rights" (as if they needed additional ones!) are ungrounded. Good for you, Austin.


Elliott@ Austin on Two Wheels said...

I was really proud of our Council when they overcame some of the motorist histrionics to pass what Gov Perry should have signed into law. One thing to keep in mind on this is that the likelihood of motorists being ticketed in everyday traffic is fairly low. The law makes fault clearer in car-bike accidents which makes it easier for the DA to prosecute reckless driving. In the past, this has been difficult to do. This is probably the best part of the ordinance as our state has a history of cyclists being run over in questionable circumstances and law enforcement saying there is nothing to be done.

The other thing for motorists to keep in mind is that the 3 foot passing clearance is only required when passing someone traveling in your lane. If a cyclist is in a bike lane, that is considered another lane of traffic so the extra clearance is not required.

Robert Anderson said...

Thanks for your comment, Elliott. I agree with your sentiments one-hundred-percent, that this is a tool for the DA in prosecuting careless/reckless driving. And that's enough.

BikeHutt said...

This is a good step toward making it safer to ride a bike on the streets of Austin thereby increasing the likelihood that people may opt to take their bikes instead of their cars to wherever they need to go. My days of riding a bicycle in Austin were full of fear and conflict with angry motorists especially of the redneck persuasion. While the language of the law isn't perfect, it shows some effort from a state not known for progressive thinking.
The situation in New Zealand is quite similar where road users are struggling to get along well and where a 1.5 metre law of clearance seems unlikely to make much difference on the already crowded roads particularly on the North Island.
I'll pass this post on to the clever people who work for NZ Transport as I believe it is well worth noting. I've always felt like a VRU!