Cyclists, Motorists, and the Theory of Move Over Laws

We’ve all seen a beleaguered bicycle rider huffing and puffing on the side of the road, motorists buzzing by them at alarming speeds. The area on which the bicycle travels may be narrow and unforgiving, with every errant move carrying the implicit threat of adding to the approximately 20,000 bicycle injuries or fatalities in the U.S. every year. It’s an all too common scene that exemplifies the fundamental tension between motorist and cyclist, while invoking the increasingly relevant question of whether or not our laws do enough to protect the latter.

The Classification Problem

For the purposes of traffic laws and the way we determine fault in accidents, bicycles are generally considered vehicles. However, if a bicycle is a “vehicle,” it cannot be much of one: bikes have little to no mass, paired with the maneuverability and approximate speed of a running pedestrian. Also missing are the safety features found in full-fledged motor vehicles, like crash panels, seat belts, or airbags. Truly, the cyclist fends for themselves, forced to ride with traffic, their back turned away from traffic to limit safe observation, exposing life and limb to traffic, and yet not protected from traffic in the least by either the bicycle or the generosity of our laws.

Of course, different rules are in play for pedestrians. Pedestrians have unfettered use of sidewalks and crosswalks, and enjoy the full right-of-way unless specifically proscribed by law. Walking is also usually safer than cycling: A pedestrian walking in a crosswalk in the direction of traffic is being placed out of harm’s way, at the most opportune time to cross the street. A pedestrian walking against traffic along a road, in accordance with the laws in a growing number of municipalities, is in a position where they can observe and react to oncoming traffic.

Unfortunately, these categories are absolute. If our goal is to make cycling safer, we cannot tinker with the classifications by making cyclists, say, a subset of pedestrians or a pedestrian mode of transport, because this would limit the utility of cycling. After all, there are many places, such as freeways, where pedestrians are simply not allowed to go.

Likewise, we cannot give bicycles a kind of “dual citizenship” as both a vehicle and a pedestrian mode of transport. Doing so may only endanger pedestrians while simultaneously creating a law enforcement nightmare, because it would be constantly unclear which classification–a vehicle or a pedestrian transport–was supposed to be in play for a cyclist in any given situation.

Move Over Laws May Be the Key

In the 1990s, we first recognized the problem that paramedics working on the side of the road were being struck and killed by passing drivers at an alarming rate. When also faced with the sobering reality that more police officers were dying from car collisions at traffic stops than from bullets, it was clear that lawmakers had to act.

Now active in every state, move over laws generally require drivers to move to a farther lane or else slow down when an emergency vehicle is on the side of the road. Since this legislation went into effect in all 50 states, countless lives have been saved.

Something similar to move over laws may also provide a possible solution to the problem of legislating bicycle safety. A cyclist moving with traffic on the side of the road may be in a situation akin to that of a paramedic rendering aid on the side of the road, or of a police officer writing a ticket on a narrow shoulder. With the bicycle trundling along at a typical speed of just 10 mph, and motorists moving at far greater speeds, the cyclist is effectively stationary to them.

Consider the cyclist’s role along the roadway as well, functionally limited to just “staying on the edge of the road” and “hoping nobody going five times as fast hits them.” With their backs wholly turned away from traffic, and with nothing but less useful versions of the mirrors and lights found on motorcars to shore up this discrepancy, a cyclist has little to no agency in the split-second decision-making we associate with driving on a roadway. Just as with a police officer or EMS worker on the side of the road, the decision of how to react to their presence and when, is left strictly to passing motorists–the only party who may even be aware of the other at the time. Here’s the thing: Because motorists essentially cannot be trusted to always make the safest and most ethical choices in the absence of laws regulating those choices, we need laws that enforce safe decision-making in these particular situations.

Conclusion

All told, the theory behind move over laws may provide an important new legislative avenue into tamping down bicycle accident numbers, by improving the interactions between cyclists and motorists on our roadways.

Posted in: Legal Research
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