Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Chicago Tribune "Letters To The Editor" Rehash Old Stereotypes

The Chicago Tribune posted a series of Letters to the Editor entitled "Letters: In light of death, how cyclists can ride smarter." The letters unfortunately reflect many of the misguided and inaccurate sentiments that have long plagued cyclists. Despite the hundreds of miles of bicycle lanes in Chicago and the specific sections of the Chicago Municipal Code and the Illinois Vehicle Code that serve to protect bicyclists, there are those that any crash is in some way the cyclist's fault. 

And apparently the Chicago Tribune thinks a fair summary is all cyclists should be riding "smarter," which would imply that we are not riding cautiously despite riding amongst giant SUVs, trucks and distracted motorists. The reality is most cyclists are law abiding and ride as safe as possible under the current conditions that are a combination of a culture of favoring motor vehicles and policy decisions that seek options that are least objectionable to the motoring public as opposed to those policies that value the life and safety of bicyclists. 

The authors of these "Letters to the Editor" fail to realize that many of their characterizations are inconsistent with the actual laws in place in Chicago and in Illinois generally. Three key bike laws stand out. 

1. Dennis' Law Solidifies The Equal Standing Of Bicyclists in Illinois

"Dennis' Law" went into effect on January 1, 2017 and makes the Illinois Rules of the Road absolutely clear that bicycles are “vehicles” as defined in the Illinois Vehicle Code. This statutory change to Illinois' statewide bike laws means that drivers of motor vehicles must provide the right-of-way to bicycles under the same circumstances they would to motor vehicles. Dennis' Law reflects the longstanding right of cyclists in Illinois to the same rights as motorists in Illinois. Motorists do not have "special" standing over bicyclists. 

2. Only Bicycles May Use Chicago's Bike Lanes

The purpose of bike lanes is to create a clearly defined area where bicyclists are not only permitted but intended users of the roadways. Marked bike lanes also serve as a warning to motorists that bicyclists may be present. "See Bike Lane, Think Bike" is the idea. The Chicago Municipal Code is absolutely clear: A motorist can not park nor stand in a bicycle lane. Here is the plain language of 9-040-060 of the Chicago Municipal Code: 
The driver of a vehicle shall not drive, unless entering or exiting a legal parking space, or stand, or park the vehicle upon any on street path or lane designated by official signs or markings for the use of bicycles, or otherwise drive or place the vehicle in such a manner as to impede bicycle traffic on such path or lane. The driver of a vehicle shall not stand or park the vehicle upon any lane designated by pavement markings for the shared use of motor vehicles and bicycles, or place the vehicle in such a manner as to impede bicycle traffic on such lane. In addition to the fine provided in Section 9-4-025 of this Code, any vehicle parked in violation of this section shall be subject to an immediate tow and removal to a city vehicle pound or authorized garage.
3.  Drivers Turning Right Across the Path of a Bicyclist MUST Yield to the Bicyclist

A right-hook collision occurs when a motor vehicle and a bicycle are travelling in the same direction and the driver of the motor vehicle turns right across the path of the bicyclist. Section 9-16-020 of the Municipal Code of Chicago specifically prohibits right turns in front of bicycles. The ordinance states:
When a motor vehicle and a bicycle are traveling in the same direction on any highway, street, or road, the operator of the motor vehicle overtaking such bicycle traveling on the right side of the roadway shall not turn to the right in front of the bicycle at that intersection or at any alley or driveway until such vehicle has overtaken and is safely clear of the bicycle.” 
The reason that these types of crashes are so common is simple: the motorist does not see the bicyclist even though they have the opportunity to do so. The motorist typically makes the turn without ever checking for other traffic - including bicycles - when making the turn and the collision occurs. 

It is crucially important to note that there is a specific duty placed upon the motorists to make sure that it is safe to turn right and not just assume there isn't a bicycle to their right. The key words in the ordinance are "until such vehicle has overtaken and is safely clear of the bicycle." The weight of these words are that it is incumbent upon the motorist to make absolute certain that the path is clear before turning. In addition, the commercial vehicles utilized in a professional capacity are supposed to be just that. "Professionals." More than anyone else they are the users of the roadways that need to follow all of the Rules of the Road and drive safely at all times. 

"Look For Bikes" 

The only take away from yet another tragedy in Chicago is that motorists must at least give bicyclists equal consideration as required by law. But ideally as fellow citizens bicyclists can get the respect and deference that we often need.