To the Editor:
I appreciated the front-page article on bicycle safety, and would like to add some observations as one who uses a bicycle as year-round transportation on Martha’s Vineyard (July 23, “Martha’s Vineyard Transportation Plan tackles bicycle safety”).
A few months ago, I was passed with scant inches to spare by an 18-wheeler going 40 mph on State Road in West Tisbury. When I reached the Steamship Authority terminal, the truck was waiting in line. I approached two Tisbury police officers, one at a time. Both were friendly and listened politely. The two responses were, “Some people just don’t follow the rules,” and, “You should walk your bike.” Alas, West Tisbury to Vineyard Haven is a long way to walk a bike.
The Vineyard could be a wonderful place to use a bike for transportation. It’s mostly flat, distances are modest, and the weather is mild most of the year, not unlike the Netherlands and Denmark, two countries where 20 to 30 percent of all trips are made by bike, versus 1 percent in the U.S. Think of the reduction in summer traffic congestion if one-quarter of the vehicles were bikes instead of cars and trucks. But many potential cyclists think that it’s too dangerous to cycle here. It’s hard to disagree with them. And as the article points out, shared-use paths (SUPs), with their own inherent hazards caused by vastly different user speeds, are not the solution.
The rate of cycling fatalities in the U.S. is four times that of the Netherlands. One factor that makes cycling more dangerous here is driver behavior — to save three seconds, a driver will pass within inches of a cyclist. Another critical factor is the lack of a legally defined safe-passing distance and the effort to enforce it. In Germany, for example, the legally defined safe-passing distance is 1.5 meters (about 5 feet). Slightly over half of U.S. states require safe-passing distances of 3 feet or more. Contrary to what the article in The Times states, Massachusetts is one of the states without a legally defined safe-passing distance.
There is a bill (H3073) in the legislature that would rectify this, requiring a minimum of three feet, plus an additional foot for every 10 mph above 30 mph. However, the law is only effective with education of drivers and enforcement by police. A Johns Hopkins study found one in six drivers violated Maryland’s three-foot law, yet only two citations had been issued in two years, both after actual collisions.
Making cycling safer on Martha’s Vineyard isn’t primarily dependent on finding funding and making more SUPs. It starts with a concerted effort to get drivers to slow down and pass cyclists safely. Really, at the heart of this effort is basic respect for the lives of others, along with a campaign to get the law enforcement community to be more aware and proactive on bicycle safety. Cyclists need to do their part, too. Obey traffic laws, be visible, use a mirror, and have adequate lighting if riding at night.
A safer cycling environment benefits many people — our visitors, the year-rounders, our children — and is a real possibility here on MV. Let’s make it happen.