Editorial: Clarifying rules of the road in Hadley — and beyond

Wednesday, December 04, 2013
Hadley’s administrator suggests his town has more important issues to address than one bicyclist’s unhappy Route 9 experience. The town’s foe in a federal civil lawsuit is claiming victory for all riders.

It’s likely parties will continue to disagree about one of the most unusual transportation conflicts in recent memory in the Valley.

But Wednesday night, Hadley officials are expected to review and approve an agreement that resolves a bicyclist’s complaint that town police officers harassed him in 2009 and 2010. If so, a civil case filed by Eli Damon of Easthampton alleging malicious prosecution, illegal seizure of property and civil rights violations will end a week short of trial.

For $27,500, the cost of attorney’s fees paid by the town insurer, Hadley spares two officers and its department the trouble — perhaps ordeal — of cross-examination. Other matters in the case were resolved months ago in a 54-page ruling by U.S. Magistrate Judge Kenneth P. Neiman. But the judge said in September it would be up to a jury to decide whether officers treated Damon unfairly.

In the agreement, the town acknowledges Damon was within his rights to travel in the farthest-right lane in a four-lane section of Route 9 at a time when traffic was heavy. Damon’s attorney, Andrew Fischer of Boston, says the town, if it accepts the pact, is agreeing Damon has a right to bicycle in a travel lane if it is unsafe to ride closer to the shoulder or off the road altogether. The town will instruct its police officers about this.

It may seem odd that it took so much legal wrangling and consumed so many U.S. District Court resources to establish this principle. But it isn’t widely accepted by motorists — and that puts bicyclists at risk.

Along the way to clarifying this, Damon boldly asserted his right to use the road. That put him in conflict with motorists and Hadley police. This settlement makes the point that Damon had every right to use this public road in this fashion. That is an important thing to establish.

But it is now time to let this matter cool and for everyone to take the proper lesson from it.

In his ruling, Neiman said this: “The court ... has little trouble concluding that Massachusetts law requires a slower-traveling bicyclist to pull to the right to allow a faster-traveling motorist to pass when it is safe to do so under the circumstances.” Damon’s tentative agreement with Hadley embraces that, noting that a bicyclist has a duty to ride as far to the right side of the road as possible when that is “objectively safe” and that the rider should not unnecessarily obstruct the flow of traffic.

We all know what happens on roads when someone acts “unnecessarily.” People get angry and this shared space gets dangerous. Unnecessarily dangerous. Damon appears to have won the end game, but if this settlement emboldens risky riding, it will not advance public safety.