Starting this week, a new Pennsylvania law requires drivers to give bicyclists at least four feet of room when passing bicycle riders on public streets.

It seems like such a basic rule of the road – to give a bicyclist a safe, wide berth when passing – but in real life drivers often don’t give cyclists much space because of worries about breaking other laws by crossing the center yellow lines on roadways when passing, according to a story in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

“The statewide law, which went into effect Monday morning, allows drivers to pass over yellow lane lines to make way for cyclists,” the Inquirer reported. “Cars turning left must also yield to bikes coming from the opposite direction.” Twenty other states already have similar laws.

Operators of bicycles and motor vehicles must respect and beware of each other on our roadways to maintain safety and avoid crashes. Image credit: © iStockphoto.com/olaser

In a story on the FOX 43 TV online, PennDOT Secretary Barry J. Schoch said that the new law will help address one of the biggest concerns when bicycles and motor vehicles share the road – the difference in their traveling speeds. “I urge all drivers and cyclists to learn the rules of the road to better share our highways and make travel safer for all,” he said.

“The new law also calls for bicycle riders to use all reasonable efforts to avoid impeding the normal flow of traffic,” FOX 43 reported. “When there is only one travel lane, bicyclists may use any portion of the lane to avoid hazards on the roadway, including maintaining a safe distance from stopped and parked cars. As always, bicyclists and motorists should obey all traffic signs and signals.”

For drivers, it means that now you can pass bicyclists more safely without having to be concerned about being ticketed by a police officer for crossing the center yellow line on a roadway.

“Bicyclists are now required to use reasonable efforts to avoid disrupting the flow of traffic and to stay as close as possible to the right-hand curb,” according to the Inquirer story. “Pennsylvania Department of Transportation statistics for 2011 count only two cyclist fatalities from motor accidents in Philadelphia,” but less serious bicycle/car accidents happen all the time.

We all need to be more aware of bicyclists on our roadways now that spring is here and the summer riding season is approaching. More and more bicyclists will be on the roads and we need to adjust our driving awareness and styles to be able to share the roads safely with them, according to PennDOT’s DriveSafe.org Web site.

DriveSafe.org reminds bicyclists to adhere to some basic safety practices when operating a bicycle on our roadways:

  • Wear light-colored, reflective clothing so you can be seen.
  • Consider wearing an approved helmet and other protective gear.
  • Children under 12 years of age must wear an approved safety helmet.
  • Ride on the right side of the road.
  • Signal your intentions in advance.
  • Consider attending training to obtain the skills necessary to ride safely on the road.

In addition, proper headlights and taillights are also critical for night riding, as well as hand protection and tight-fitting pants clips so that long clothing doesn’t get caught up in the bike’s chain, which could cause an accident.

Great advice is also available for bicyclists on how to avoid the most common types of bicycle/vehicle crashes.  Check out the “How Not To Get Hit By Cars” Web site, with helpful and easy-to-understand tips and illustrations on avoiding the top 10 types of bicycle/motor vehicle crashes, such as when a driver opens a door in front of a cyclist to a vehicle that pulls out in front of a bicyclist without seeing it.

There are also specific safety tips for children who ride bicycles to help keep them safe in our communities. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) offers a “Kids and Bicycle Safety” Tip Sheet to help parents keep their children safe on their bicycles.

Among the key rules of the road for children, from the NHTSA:

  • Go With the Traffic Flow. Ride on the right in the same direction as other vehicles. Go with the flow – not against it.
  • Obey All Traffic Laws. A bicycle is a vehicle and you’re a driver. When you ride in the street, obey all traffic signs, signals, and lane markings.
  • Yield to Traffic When Appropriate. Almost always, drivers on a smaller road must yield (wait) for traffic on a major or larger road. If there is no stop sign or traffic signal and you are coming from a smaller roadway (out of a driveway, from a sidewalk, a bike path, etc.), you must slow down and look to see if the way is clear before proceeding. This also means yielding to pedestrians who have already entered a crosswalk.
  • Be Predictable. Ride in a straight line, not in and out of cars. Signal your moves to others.
  • Stay Alert at All Times. Use your eyes AND ears. Watch out for potholes, cracks, wet leaves, storm grates, railroad tracks, or anything that could make you lose control of your bike. You need your ears to hear traffic and avoid dangerous situations; don’t wear a headset when you ride.
  • Look Before Turning. When turning left or right, always look behind you for a break in traffic, then signal before making the turn. Watch for left- or right-turning traffic.
  • Watch for Parked Cars. Ride far enough out from the curb to avoid the unexpected from parked cars (like doors opening, or cars pulling out).

And for bicycle riders under 10 years of age, the NHTSA suggests riding on sidewalks rather than on streets.

“The safest place for bicycle riding is on the street, where bicycles are expected to follow the same rules of the road as motorists and ride in the same direction,” the NHTSA says. “Children less than 10 years old, however, are not mature enough to make the decisions necessary to safely ride in the street.”

  • For anyone riding on a sidewalk:
    • Check the law in your State or jurisdiction to make sure sidewalk riding is allowed.
    • Watch for vehicles coming out of or turning into driveways.
    • Stop at corners of sidewalks and streets to look for cars and to make sure the drivers see you before crossing.
    • Enter a street at a corner and not between parked cars. Alert pedestrians that you are near by saying, “Excuse me,” or, “Passing on your left,” or use a bell or horn.

Spring is here in full force and it’s a wonderful thing for us all to enjoy as the days continue to get warmer and longer.

Let’s not forget to keep bicyclists in mind as we operate our larger, heavier, potentially lethal vehicles on those same roads.

Keep the new four-foot-safety-cushion law for passing bicyclists in mind as you drive and we will all be potentially safer.

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