Making sensible bicycle passing laws in Michigan

1280px-Michigan_state_capitolWe track all state legislation that gets introduced pertaining to traffic laws. Why? Like most Michigan cities, Detroit has adopted the state motor vehicle code as local ordinances. When the vehicle code changes, so to do the local traffic ordinances.

In October 2015, we found a safe passing bill for bicycles had been introduced in the Michigan House, which was apparently the same language the city of Grand Rapids used. It required drivers of vehicles to give five feet when passing bicyclists. However, we wouldn’t support it for a couple major reasons.

First, since bicyclists must follow the same rules as the driver of vehicles while on the roadway, they too would have to give five feet when passing other bicyclists.

Second, it mandated that vehicles (and bicyclists) to always pass bicyclists on the left. It would have prohibited passing bicycles on the right, which often happens:

  • When a bicyclist is in a left turn lane
  • When a bicyclist is at a light going straight and there’s a right turn lane next to to them
  • On one-way streets with more than two lanes where bicyclists can ride on either side of the road
  • Where bike lanes are on the left side of the road, like on Belle Isle.

Yes, with this legislation, cars could not legally pass bicycles in the bike lane on Belle Isle. Clearly all the implications of the bill hadn’t been considered.

We contacted the League of Michigan Bicyclists and learned they had a role in the bill language. We outlined our concerns.

Last month, we discovered a new safe passing bill was introduced in the Senate. One of the bills allowed right side passing as we’d proposed. However, the bills required bicyclists on the roadway to pass other bicyclists by five feet. Again, we couldn’t support the bills as written.

This time, working closely with our friends at Henry Ford Health System, we directly contacted the bill sponsors, State Senators David Knezek and Margaret O’Brien. We proposed alternative language so that the five foot requirement only applied to motorists.

And we were successful! Substitute bills (SB 1076 and SB 1077) with our modified language passed out of Senate committee before passing the full Senate. Since these bills aren’t tie-barred (one can pass without the other), it’s possible that just the left side-only passing bill will pass. We’ll see what happens in the House.

Being Realistic

It’s great to have Senate support for improving bicycling in Michigan. Unfortunately, there’s little data that passing bills in other states have had much effect.

These passing bills are in some ways a reaction to the tragedy earlier this year in Kalamazoo. Clearly that driver ignored the state laws regarding driving while under the influence. He all but certainly would have ignored safe passing laws had they already been enacted.

Another consideration is that 36% of all reported Detroit bike crashes with vehicles are hit and run. Fifty percent of the crashes causing a bicyclist fatality are hit and run. If the driver gets away, no new bike law will help.

The Michigan Senate also passed a bill (SB 1078) that sets minimum time of one hour for the existing motorist education requirement on laws pertaining to motorcycles and bicycles. The bill also adds the laws pertaining to pedestrians. The Coalition supports this bill and thinks

Take Action: Please contact your state representative and ask them to support Senate Bills 1076, 1077 and 1078.