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Senate bills setting passing distance for bikes advance

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – Michigan motorists would be required to keep at least five feet away from bicyclists when passing them on the left under a proposed law inspired by a Kalamazoo crash that killed five cyclists and injured four others.

The bipartisan package, which a Senate committee approved Wednesday, would also require driver’s education classes to include bicycle awareness and impose tougher penalties for motorists who kill someone while texting and driving.

“We need a change in the driving culture,” said Paul Gobble, a survivor of the June 2016 crash in Kalamazoo County, where a pickup driver plowed into a group of cyclists.

“There is a great deal of ignorance about what the rights are of cyclists from drivers out there, but beyond that, there’s a great deal of animosity towards cyclists,” said Gobble, who recovered from a brain injury.

“The drivers, there are some of them that are just angry (at cyclists) are out there. They yell at us. They drive aggressively towards us. I personally know folks who have been ridden off the road deliberately.”

The legislation, spearheaded by Republican Sen. Margaret O’Brien of Portage and Democratic Sen. David Knezek of Dearborn Heights, now heads to the full Senate. The upper chamber approved a passing-distance proposal last year but the House did not vote on it.

Michigan is one of 11 states that does not have designated guidance for drivers on how to safely pass bicyclists, said John Lindenmayer of the League of Michigan Bicyclists.

“That’s proven to be fatal,” Lindenmayer said, pointing to statistics showing 38 Michigan bicyclists were killed in 2016. He also noted a female bicyclist was killed last weekend in a Clinton Township hit-and-run.

Cities such as Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor, Portage, Oshtemo, Norton Shores and Dearborn have adopted local rules, but a uniform statewide law is needed to alleviate a “patchwork” of regulations, Lindenmayer told legislators.

The proposal would amend the Michigan Vehicle Code to require drivers approaching bicycles to “pass at a safe distance of at least five feet to the left of the bicycle” and then return to the right-hand edge of the road “when safely clear of the overtaken bicycle.”

The reintroduced bicycle safety package includes two new bills that would also strengthen the state’s ban on texting while driving.

The legislation would extend the phone ban to include tablets and other computer devices. It would also create a new five-year felony for texting-and-driving crashes that result in death, currently punishable by up to one year behind bars.

“At any given daylight moment across this country, there are approximately 660,000 drivers using cellphones or handling other electronic devices,” said Mark Reene, president of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan.

“Michigan has the opportunity now to take the next step to prevent further victims and victimization.”

Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson’s office is not taking a position on the bike safety package but has concerns with a bill that would require driver’s training courses to include one hour of instruction on laws pertaining to cyclists or other “vulnerable roadway users.”

The state currently offers a national driver’s education curriculum but would likely have to cut some other component to fit the bike safety hour, said legislative liaison David Richmond.

“What we’re grappling with is trying to determine what it is that we take out,” he said. “Is it instructing kids on how to drive at night? Is it how to operate under adverse weather conditions?”