Review finds Pennsylvania's new bike safety law not closely enforced

A year later, Pittsburgh police are yet to issue first ticket


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Police across Pennsylvania have been slow to enforce a year-old law requiring motorists to give bicycles a four-foot buffer when passing them.

Only 15 citations for passing too closely were issued in the entire state in the first 13 months after the law took effect. Only two were issued in Allegheny County and none in the city of Pittsburgh, according to data provided by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

"I'm pretty dismayed there hasn't been a single ticket issued in Pittsburgh under this statute," said Scott Bricker, executive director of Bike Pittsburgh, an advocacy group. "We're going to work on this."

Some bicyclists said the law has had a beneficial impact despite the dearth of citations, that drivers are being more careful around them. Others, however, contended that nothing has changed.

The new law, which took effect in April 2012, requires drivers who overtake bicyclists to provide at least four feet of space between vehicle and bike and to pass "at a careful and prudent reduced speed." They are allowed to cross the center line if necessary to provide the buffer. Violations are summary offenses that carry a $25 fine.

Court data show that citations were issued in only 12 of the state's 67 counties. No citations were issued in Philadelphia. The two in Allegheny County were in Harmar and Munhall.

Pittsburgh police Cmdr. Scott Schubert cited a variety of factors for the lack of citations in Pittsburgh, including the newness of the law and officers who are busy with more serious matters. An officer answering a call for a burglar alarm or a fight, for instance, would not pause to stop a driver for passing a bicyclist too closely, he said.

Also, he said, an officer would have to be in the exact right place at the right time with a good viewing angle to discern a violation and determine that a car was within four feet. And motorists are less likely to make a dangerous pass if they see a police car.

Cmdr. Schubert said he watches closely for traffic violations while on patrol in his unmarked cruiser but hasn't seen anyone break the four-foot law.

"It's a good law to protect people who are out there lawfully riding a bike," he said. "A car is always going to win over a bicycle. It's definitely something that needs to be there. There definitely needs to be more education."

Pittsburgh's bike-pedestrian coordinator, Stephen Patchan, agreed that the law probably has more value as a way of educating drivers than as an enforcement tool. "More and more people know about four feet and safe passing and are doing it. That's a win in my book," he said.

Bicycle crashes and injuries increased last year in Allegheny County despite the new law.

There were 104 crashes, two fatalities and 102 people injured, according to Pennsylvania Department of Transportation spokesman Steve Cowan. The previous year had 84 crashes, no fatalities and 86 injuries. All but two of last year's crashes involved moving vehicles, as did all but four in 2011.

Ed Quigley of Monaca, who rides frequently on Pittsburgh streets and in the suburbs, said the new law has brought "a clear improvement in overall behavior. There's no doubt about it. A lot of people are giving us more room."

Mr. Quigley was involved in a February incident in which he said a Port Authority bus brushed or narrowly missed him on Main Street in Sharpsburg. Police reviewed video from cameras on the bus and could not determine if he was hit or how close the bus came to him, and the driver was not charged. Mr. Quigley was not injured.

Brendan Linton of Cranberry, a Seneca Valley High School senior who said he rides 1,500 miles per year, said in an email that "the vast majority of drivers are providing ample space. However, there are still locations/scenarios that I encounter when some drivers get impatient when forced to wait behind (due to oncoming traffic) and simply try to 'squeeze' their way through."

Other bicyclists, who responded to inquiries from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on social media sites about whether the new law is affecting motorist behavior, gave it mixed reviews.

Here are excerpts from their comments:

"I feel that any observation of the law is incidental, followed by the same drivers who would be courteously giving cyclists a safe amount of room regardless. Along my daily commute, I have been passed well within the four foot zone by the same significant number of cars as I've ever noticed before, if not more. Once or twice, a driver has even yelled something about 'four feet' while passing me dangerously close at high speed. Pittsburgh Police officers seem wholly uninterested in following up on infractions of vehicular laws as they relate to sharing the road with cyclists, much less know them accurately, which is likely enabling such behavior." -- Joseph Wilk

"Not even close. Maybe one out of 10 drivers." -- Steve Colwell

"It does seem the average distance between me and drivers angrily passing me has increased, (though) probably not to four feet. I have issues with (Port Authority) buses passing too closely a lot. -- Michael Jones

"It doesn't seem to have made much difference. Though I find some of the cyclists need some education as well. As I both drive and cycle to work I am amazed at some of the actions of cyclists. ... I must agree with the above comments that the police have no interest in enforcing the law. Maybe some police on bicycles mixed in with the commuters in areas with heavy bicycle traffic from time to time and issuing tickets would at least give drivers something to think about." -- Scott Lightner

"I do see a difference. I commute on West Liberty Avenue, and I take the right lane both ways. Two years ago, cars would try to sneak by me in the lane. Now I would estimate that more than 95 percent of the cars switch lanes before passing me. I get the occasional grumble (or worse) but for the most part drivers have been courteous." -- Andy Booth

"People do not follow the law just for the sake of being good citizens. People only follow these laws if there is enforcement." -- Joe Frambach

"When a driver has to choose between waiting behind a slow biker for an opening in traffic to pass safely and legally, versus squeezing between me and other traffic, they are far more likely to choose the second option. And this is encouraged by the non-enforcement of the rule; have you ever heard of a ticket being written for its violation?" -- Jon Webb

"I commute by bicycle exclusively, and I have noticed a small amount of positive change in driver behavior. While I still get passed way too closely by some drivers, I have noticed that many more drivers are crossing a double yellow to pass as the law allows. So the law has worked to educate good drivers (who were probably giving us room before the law) to give us even more room, but it has done nothing to change the bad drivers from continuing to pass us too closely." -- John Markowitz

"I commute daily from Squirrel Hill to Pitt via bike and very rarely have a driver pass unsafely close. On occasion a motorist will get behind me and honk. I like to assume that these people are unaware that I am not taking up a lane out of a desire to be in the way but because it is unsafe to either be pressed up against parked cars with doors that could fly open with no warning or sharing a lane with a car squeezing me into potential obstacles. ... That being said, I've had enough close calls with illegal passes and drivers yelling unprovoked to purchase a helmet camera to document every ride I take. I follow the law by not weaving in and out of traffic, stopping at all stop signs, and stopping at all red lights. Even though 99 percent of motorists obey the law and are polite, it only takes a single person to cause a major injury. I'm willing to document any collisions on video, because I am sure I won't be causing them by illegal behavior ... I do want to note that by far the biggest offenders are (Port Authority) buses who get way too close and pass without adequate space." -- Zachary Pozun

"I think the fundamental issue for this law, as with every law, is that the public (and often law enforcement) is not properly informed. We need a better way to let people know what laws are new, and what have changed. Perhaps regular driver's license retests at 5-year intervals would be useful." -- Bryan Hood

"I too have seen some improvement, but only some, on passing distance. However, those that do pass, even when they do give enough room, often seem to speed up dangerously to do so -- directly contravening the second half of the statute: 'at a careful and prudent reduced speed.' " -- Jonathon Isaac Swiderski

"I see a marginal difference in passing distance and zero improvement on right hooks, which were part of that law. I don't think most people know 4 feet is the law. Last fall I was buzzed by the same driver five times. I collected evidence (including helmet cam footage) and took it to the Pittsburgh police. They acted professionally and responsibly, and I elected to let the driver off with a warning. The charges we discussed included harassment and endangering a person with a vehicle. Not a single breath was taken to mention the 4 foot rule." -- Amy Super

"I haven't noticed much difference, to be honest. Most drivers prior to the law passed with at least a few feet of clearance, with only the odd driver buzzing right by. I've never stopped to measure the percentages, but they seem to be about the same since the law has taken effect." -- Matt Reitzell

"I think hardly anyone knows what the rule is, and those that do, do not know how to comply. If I am to the right of the white line, I get buzzed at 18 inches or less, as if to say four feet doesn't matter if the bike is on the shoulder. If I am in the right 1/4 of the lane, maybe half of the drivers give me four feet, some give me a dangerous and unnecessary 15 feet. Hardly anyone slows down, maybe 1 in 20." -- Stuart Strickland

"I see zero change. Public transportation vehicles don't even give room for autos let alone buses. I also have yet to see someone pulled over or heard of a ticket received for not allowing enough room when passing a cyclist." -- Edward Hwhat

"Pittsburgh has a lot of drivers that are ignorant of the law: some think that bicycles belong on the sidewalk, and will honk or yell at you if you don't; some think that cyclists taking a lane is illegal; some think it's good sport to scare a cyclist by revving the engine as you pass them; many have never ridden a bicycle on these streets and are oblivious to the dangers on the road, such as gravel, storm sewer grates, potholes, and car doors, that force us away from the right edge of the road; and many do not know of the four-foot rule. PA needs mandatory driver tests every few years!" -- Paul S. Heckbert

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Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/Roundabout. Twitter: @pgtraffic. First Published May 24, 2013 4:00 AM


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