Rick Langlois on bicycle safety

July 13, 2007

We understand the issues that have been raised about bicycling behavior and we all agree that bicycle safety is a paramount concern. However, we would like to clear up several misconceptions brought up in recent letters to the editor. Both legally and practically, bicycles are NOT pedestrian traffic and as vehicles should obey traffic laws. It is important to note that Illinois law traffic laws apply to persons riding bicycles. In the state vehicle code, Illinois Compiled Statutes (ILCS) chapter 625 [5/11], there are a number of provisions applicable to bicyclists. In particular, bicyclists have a right to use the roadway in accordance with these laws and are granted all the rights and are subject to all of the duties applicable to the driver of a vehicle, with certain exceptions.

In the early 1890's, before cars became common place, bicycle clubs in the United States pushed hard for road improvements. Originally, many paved roads in the US were for bicycles, not cars. Similarly, sidewalks are not made for bicyclists. Raised sidewalks were included in original Roman road design centuries ago and would often be half the width of the road - long before the bicycle was invented. In several places, Illinois law clearly excludes bicyclists from using sidewalks. But when bicycles are on the sidewalk, they are, by law, supposed to follow rules applicable to pedestrians.

Bicycling on paths leads to more accidents because of conflicts at intersections and the vehicular speed of the bicycle. This is even more of a problem on sidewalks because of driveways and intersections every block. Bicyclists have more than "a legal right" to be on the roads; it is often the most sensible and safest place for them to be, even if another vehicle occasionally has to slow down for them. There are ways to design roads and paths to minimize the conflicts and this is where attention should be given, instead of wishing bicyclists would disappear. Roads can be designed to be "complete streets" so that they are safe for bicyclists, cars, trucks, and anyone else trying to get from one place to another. In fact, Senate Bill 314 requiring IDOT to build "bicycle and pedestrian ways" with major urban road projects has passed both chambers and awaits the governor's signature.

What the state law says for bikes is that they need to ride as close as practical to the side of the road except when passing, turning left or to avoid obstacles, hazards, other vehicles and so on. When turning left or on one way streets with more than one lane, a bike can be on the left edge as well. Bicyclists should use hand signals though not continuously if the hand is needed for control or operation of the bike, must use a front light and a rear reflector at night, and may ride two abreast as long as normal and reasonable movement of traffic is not impeded. Further, parents and guardians are responsible for seeing that their children comply with these provisions. Awaiting the governor's signature is an expansion of these bicycle provisions including a 3 foot passing rule, allow the use of the right arm right turn signal, and taking the lane where right turn lanes occur. For a printable pocket card of Illinois Bicycle Laws please see the League of Illinois Bicyclists (LIB) web page at www.BikeLIB.org.

We also recommend reading LIB's 12 Things You Should Know about Bicycles, Safety and Crashes, their share the Road video (www.bikelib.org/video) and (for bicyclists), their bike safety tips (www.bikelib.org/education/tips.pdf). We ask that drivers be aware of their behavior as distracted driving (cell phones being the biggest culprit) is now one of the biggest causes of accidents, with the motor crash death rate per mile driven in 2005 rising for the first time since 1995 because of increases in pedestrian, motorcyclist and bicyclist fatalities.

We often need to make compromises in our efficient travel and daily lives so that we can all get along. It is easy, but does much harm, to make assumptions without a valid knowledge base when things inconvenience us. There's room for all of us if we are a little patient. Bicyclists fare best when they act and are treated like other vehicles on the road.