John Coull & Jean Schwartz: ‘Safety’ can be defined differently in Route 9 cyclist case
AMHERST — As bicyclists for many years we have had few accidents, fewer still involving motor vehicles, and no violations. We feel compelled to react to a Sept. 5 Gazette article headlined, “Judge rules on bicycle use in road.”
First, we would not choose to ride any part of Route 9 if there were any reasonable alternative. The Norwottuck Rail Trail does not qualify as a reasonable alternative.
When we must be on Route 9 or a similar road, we are happy to ride in a designated bike lane or paved shoulder. However, in the absence of such a lane, we are reluctant to ride to the far right of the right-hand travel lane for good reason.
If a motorist sees us hugging the far right, it is likely that he will take that as an opportunity to pass us within the lane, possibly leaving us inches of safety (or not). But if I am in the middle of that travel lane, he is compelled to wait for a safe opportunity to use the next lane over and pass as he should.
We are hardly qualified to refute U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Kenneth P. Neiman’s 54-page decision, but we see nothing in the applicable laws saying a bicyclist must use the far right side of the right lane.
Consider this passage of the relevant state law: “The driver of a vehicle passing another vehicle traveling in the same direction shall drive a safe distance to the left of such other vehicle and shall not return to the right until safely clear of the overtaken vehicle; and, if the way is of sufficient width for the two vehicles to pass, the driver of the leading one shall not unnecessarily obstruct the other. If it is not possible to overtake a bicycle or other vehicle at a safe distance in the same lane, the overtaking vehicle shall use all or part of an adjacent lane if it is safe to do so or wait for a safe opportunity to overtake.”
Each use of the word “safe” is subject to judgment and definition. Whose judgment is more relevant? The motorist who has avoided (we hope) a slow-moving object, or the bicyclist who has felt his sleeve flutter from the near brush of a side mirror?
The first sentence of last week’s article reads, “A federal magistrate has ruled that bicyclists must ride to the right of traffic unless safety issues dictate otherwise.”
Who rules that “safety issues dictate otherwise?” Is it a magistrate who rules after a motorist is delayed that “safety issues did not dictate otherwise?”
Or is it ruled after a bicyclist is struck and injured that “safety issues did dictate otherwise?”
What did “safety issues dictate?”
We don’t know because we weren’t there. But we react viscerally to any headline or any judgment that suggests that bicyclists have fewer rights than motorists. Is this ruling truly consistent with Massachusetts law regarding safe cycling?
John Coull and Jean Schwartz live in Amherst.