The Governor of Texas has spoken, there will be no “Safe Passing” legislation becoming law this Fall. For the third consecutive legislative session, special interest groups led by the Texas Bicycle Coalition have attempted to pass Bills intended to augment existing statutes in order to provide unique protections to cyclists operating on the roadway. In many ways more egregious than past attempts, Bills introduced this session sought to include various pedestrian groups among legitimate road users in an effort to garner support among otherwise indifferent legislators.
Many competent vehicular cyclists have been against the perceived need for special legislation specific to cyclists from the beginning. Those who favor Bills like this are almost without exception those who either lack the knowledge and experience to operate as competent vehicle operators on the road or represent organizations who, through their failure to convince the first group of the need for vehicular training, resort instead to placating the whims of the timid.
The first attempt to pass “Safe Passing” legislation in Texas took place in 2005. Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston.13) submitted SB-859, with Deuell and Shapleigh as co-authors. It constituted a revision to Chapter 545 wherein a new sub-section, 0535, would define the “safe distance” for passing a cyclist on the roadway and ascribing penalties for violation. It died in committee when, upon second reading, Ellis called to suspend regular order to consider the Bill. The motion failed the required two-thirds vote and was killed.
Another attempt to quantify a “Safe Passing” distance as applicable to cyclists, uniquely, took place two years later, in 2007. Again, it was Senator Ellis who submitted SB-248; he was joined as co-authors by Senators Carona, Lucio, Van de Putte and Watson, with Representative Linda Harper-Brown as House sponsor. Initially, the language was essentially identical to that of the attempt in 2005.
On the fifty-seventh day (20070508) of the session, upon second reading of the Bill, Senator Dan Patrick (R-Houston.07) offered two ammendments. The first would have essentially limited the scope of the statute to highways by removing the word “street” (failed); the second would have mandated the use of a mirror by the bicyclist (failed). Upon failure of these proposals, Senator Kim Brimer (R-Fort Worth.10) proposed a third amendment which would have added the statement “or was operating on a public road that does not have a paved shoulder” to §551.104(b)(2) (passed), effectively strengthening the MBL/MSL rule.
The legislation returned for consideration and a third reading on the fifty-eighth day (20070509) of the session. Once again, Senator Patrick proposed an amendment. This one would have completely removed language in §551.104(b)(2)(A) allowing a red reflector visible to the rear of a bike to a distance of 50-300 feet and mandated the use of a red lamp visible to 500 feet. It passed overwhelmingly.
Ultimately, the proposed legislation died while awaiting placement on the General Calendar.
Following that brief history, we arrive at the 81st Legislative Session (2009). The story begins in the House, this time. Representative Linda Harper-Brown (R-Irving.105) filed the draft of HB-273 on 17 November 2008. It is somewhat interesting to note that a Republican lawmaker initiated the legislation this time. Her version contained almost identical language to that submitted in 2005 and 2007. It was read for the first time on 17 February 2009, where it was referred to the House Transportation Committee …never to be heard from again.
On the same day, in the Senate, Senators Ellis and John Carona (R-Dallas.16) were joint authors of a Bill, SB-488, which greatly expanded the scope of road users affected by the legislation and ascribed all beneficiaries the moniker “vulnerable road users”. In addition to cyclists essentially all Slow Moving Vehicles (SMV) recognized by the state, including farm implements, equestrian riders and vehicles pulled by equines, were included. Most amazingly was the practice of naming facultative pedestrian road users as legitimate design users. The latter to include “runner, physically disabled person, child, skater, highway construction and maintenance worker, utility worker, other worker with legitimate business in or near the road or right of way” as well as a “stranded motorist or passenger.” Personal discussions with a member of DORBA who resides in District 105 and a member of the legal team of the Texas Bicycle Coalition revealed the reason behind the inclusion of these various personages was to garner sympathy from fence-sitting Legislators in order to push the Bill through the Legislature. Within days (20090223), Harper-Brown had resubmitted her Bill as HB-827 containing language identical to that of the Senate version. This time around, there were companion versions in both the House and the Senate.
The Senate version of the Bill made good progress through its Transportation Committee with few proposed amendments. As he had done in the past, Senator Patrick sought to change the language of the legislation. Most of the latter were minor clerical revisions except for the demand that dooring and harassment subsections be removed.
(h) A person may not open the door on the side of a vehicle that is adjacent to moving traffic unless it is reasonably safe to open the door without interfering with the movement of traffic, including vulnerable road users. A person may not leave a door open on the side of a vehicle that is adjacent to moving traffic for a period longer than necessary to load or unload passengers or goods.
(i) A person may not harass, taunt, or throw an object or liquid at or in the direction of any vulnerable road user.
Additional amendments were offered in the House Transportation Committee, which were more egregious. The first added several classes, “a tow truck operator and a person operating a handcycle, moped, motor-driven cycle, or motor-assisted scooter” and removed the inclusion of motorcycles. Had this action prevailed “vulnerable road users” as a class would be limited to Slow Moving Vehicles, skaters and pedestrians. Perhaps more troubling was a proposal to require “a pedestrian or a person operating certain cycles, a moped, or a motor-assisted scooter, from operating more than three feet from the right edge line of pavement on a highway or street.”
Thankfully, save the inclusion of tow truck operators, none of these recommended changes survived the committee.
Despite counsel by competent vehicular cyclists throughout the process, the the Legislators persevered with their efforts and the Bill eventually made it through both branches of the legislature. The following constitutes the final language of the proposed legislation.
AN ACT relating to the operation of a motor vehicle in the vicinity of a vulnerable road user; providing penalties. BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF TEXAS: SECTION 1. Subchapter I, Chapter 545, Transportation Code, is amended by adding Section 545.428 to read as follows: Sec. 545.428. VULNERABLE ROAD USERS. (a) In this section, "vulnerable road user" means: (1) a pedestrian, including a runner, physically disabled person, child, skater, highway construction and maintenance worker, tow truck operator, utility worker, other worker with legitimate business in or near the road or right-of-way, or stranded motorist or passenger; (2) a person on horseback; (3) a person operating equipment other than a motor vehicle, including a bicycle, handcycle, horse-driven conveyance, or unprotected farm equipment; or (4) a person operating a motorcycle, moped, motor-driven cycle, or motor-assisted scooter. (b) An operator of a motor vehicle passing a vulnerable road user operating on a highway or street shall: (1) vacate the lane in which the vulnerable road user is located if the highway has two or more marked lanes running in the same direction; or (2) pass the vulnerable road user at a safe distance. (c) For the purposes of Subsection (b)(2), when road conditions allow, safe distance is at least: (1) three feet if the operator's vehicle is a passenger car or light truck; or (2) six feet if the operator's vehicle is a truck other than a light truck or a commercial motor vehicle as defined by Section 522.003. (d) An operator of a motor vehicle that is making a left turn at an intersection, including an intersection with an alley or private road or driveway, shall yield the right-of-way to a vulnerable road user who is approaching from the opposite direction and is in the intersection or in such proximity to the intersection as to be an immediate hazard. (e) An operator of a motor vehicle may not overtake a vulnerable road user traveling in the same direction and subsequently make a right-hand turn in front of the vulnerable road user unless the operator is safely clear of the vulnerable road user, taking into account the speed at which the vulnerable road user is traveling and the braking requirements of the vehicle making the right-hand turn. (f) An operator of a motor vehicle may not maneuver the vehicle in a manner that: (1) is intended to cause intimidation or harassment to a vulnerable road user; or (2) threatens a vulnerable road user. (g) An operator of a motor vehicle shall exercise due care to avoid colliding with any vulnerable road user on a roadway or in an intersection of roadways. (h) A violation of this section is punishable under Section 542.401 except that: (1) if the violation results in property damage, the violation is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not to exceed $500; or (2) if the violation results in bodily injury, the violation is a Class B misdemeanor. (i) It is a defense to prosecution under this section that at the time of the offense the vulnerable road user was acting in violation of the law. (j) If conduct constituting an offense under this section also constitutes an offense under another section of this code or the Penal Code, the actor may be prosecuted under either section or both sections. SECTION 2. This Act takes effect September 1, 2009.
The fact that almost all of the details of this legislation are repetitious seems not to have any bearing on the discussion. Proponents insist revision to the statute is a must in order to provide safety to cyclists. These individuals ignore the most important means of promoting vehicular cycling – education. Existing law is more than adequate to satisfy any perceived deficiencies the proposed legislation sought to fill.
In an earlier discussion, I shared the authority under which we, as cyclists, receive recognition as legitimate vehicles under the Texas Transportation Code. Section 545.051 defines the rule by which slower moving traffic is to stay right and §545.053 stipulates that overtaking vehicles are to do so on the left. Sub-section 545.053(a)(1) mentions only that the overtaking vehicle is to do so at “a safe distance”. Admittedly, this statement is ambiguous. Even so, the concept is unquestioned. Rather than create an entire statute defining a safe and acceptable distance applicable only to “vulnerable road users”, it would seem more logical to define this distance as applicable to all vehicles under the existing statute. After all bicycles are legitimate vehicles under state law.
While the details of the next concept will await a future dialogue, treatment of the real issue bears identification. Almost all road users and law enforcement officers have a disturbing misunderstanding of §551.103. They begin reading that section and see the phrase “a person operating a bicycle on a roadway who is moving slower than the other traffic on the roadway shall ride as near as practicable to the right curb or edge of the roadway” and stop. Many confuse “practicable” with “practical” or, worse yet, “possible”. More germane to this discussion is their failure to appreciate an important disclaimer: “unless . . . the person is operating a bicycle in an outside lane that is . . . less than 14 feet in width and does not have a designated bicycle lane adjacent to that lane.”
Believe it or not, almost all outside lanes in North Texas are under fourteen feet in width, That being the case, on almost all roads a cyclist is within their rights to take control of the entire lane (i.e. to ride to the left of center). When this alignment is adopted, there is created a natural buffer zone of at least three feet between the cyclist and other vehicles overtaking and passing them on the left. Since the whole point of this legislation is to create a three foot zone of comfort, the tools and legal definitions providing that buffer already exist.
Though it seemed like folly to pursue, several of us contacted the Governor’s office imploring him to consider a veto of SB-488. It seemed like a long shot, but was worth the effort in the end. On the afternoon of 19 June, Twitter, the blog’sphere and eMail accounts were all a buzz. Word had been disseminated that the Governor was close to a veto of the proposed legislation. Final confirmation came late in the afternoon, when the following statement was released.
Gov. Perry Vetoes SB 488
June 19, 2009
TO ALL TO WHOM THESE PRESENTS SHALL COME:
Pursuant to Article IV, Section 14 of the Texas Constitution, I, Rick Perry, Governor of Texas, do hereby disapprove of and veto Senate Bill No. 488 of the 81st Texas Legislature, Regular Session, due to the following objections:
Senate Bill No. 488 would create a new class of users of roadways, called “vulnerable road users,” which would require specific actions by operators of motor vehicles. These vulnerable road users would include pedestrians; highway construction and maintenance workers; tow truck operators; stranded motorists or passengers; people on horseback; bicyclists; motorcyclists; moped riders; and other similar road users.
Many road users placed into the category of vulnerable road users already have operation regulations and restrictions in statute. For example, a person operating a vehicle being drawn by an animal is subject to the same duties as a motor vehicle, and a pedestrian is required to yield the right of way to a motor vehicle, unless he or she is at an intersection or crosswalk.
While I am in favor of measures that make our roads safer for everyone, this bill contradicts much of the current statute and places the liability and responsibility on the operator of a motor vehicle when encountering one of these vulnerable road users. In addition, an operator of a motor vehicle is already subject to penalties when he or she is at fault for causing a collision or operating recklessly, whether it is against a “vulnerable user” or not.
IN TESTIMONY WHEREOF, I have signed my name officially and caused the Seal of the State to be affixed hereto at Austin, this the 19th day of June, 2009.
Governor of Texas
COBY SHORTER, III
Deputy Secretary of State
For a detailed view of this bill, visit http://www.legis.state.tx.us/BillLookup/History.aspx?LegSess=81R&Bill=SB488.
Much of this language is akin to what many of us were trying to convey to the lawmakers in the House and Senate all along. It is somewhat gratifying to find one government official willing to consider reason. Almost immediately less competent cyclists began criticizing the Governor and others of us who have been heralding a call to reason from the beginning. One woman, in fact, has submitted a FOIA request for all correspondence Perry considered before arriving at his decision. It has been posited that the Austin Police Department is behind the decision. I have a feeling she and others will be surprised at the results.
This legislation was ridiculous from the beginning. In states like Florida and Oklahoma, where laws like this are already on the books, there have been absolutely no prosecutions. Colorado lawmakers passed a version earlier this year and the backlash was almost immediate.
As mentioned above, a competent, experienced vehicular cyclist creates their own rolling buffer zone as they travel down the roadway. Validity of this concept does not originate with me. It has been proven through application by many cyclists. Cycle*Dallas and CommuteOrlando have excellent commentary with robust threads discussing this topic. Groups who consider themselves advocates for transportation cyclisting betetr serve their constituents by directing their efforts, not at specious legislative measures, but toward education programs aimed at inexperienced bicycle commuters and utility cyclists. Most or the problem centers around the irrational fear that motorists are a danger to bicycle operators. In actuality, ignorant cyclists are their own worst enemy.