James Lowenthal: Judge’s decision in Route 9 bicycling case nuanced
NORTHAMPTON — When a motorist overtakes a bicyclist, should the bicyclist move to the right to let the motorist pass? Absolutely, and virtually all cyclists here in the Valley agree and comply with that principle. But they are absolutlely not legally required to hug a pot-holed and debris-strewn shoulder or invite a driver to pass on a narrow lane if it’s dangerous to do so.
The Gazette said in an editorial that U.S. Magistrate Judge Kenneth P. Neiman’s ruling on the case of bicyclist Eli Damon vs. the Hadley Police Department and its chief and two officers “seems closer to what Hadley police were arguing,” i.e. that Damon was wrong, and unsafe, to be riding in the middle of the right-most travel lane of Route 9 in Hadley.
I disagree. Judge Neiman’s ruling — which is based on an exceptionally careful and thorough consideration of Massachusetts law as well as the details of the case — makes it clear that there are “reciprocal obligations on the part of both motorists and bicyclists to ensure that passing would occur only at a time when it is safe to do so and in a safe manner.”
He also points out that “one person’s idea of ‘safety’ may differ greatly from another’s.” This sounds like a nuanced and even-handed assessment, and does not seem biased towards either Damon’s or the Hadley Police Department’s claims.
The paper also implies that Damon was intentionally provoking the police to “prove a point” by exercising his legal right to bike in the middle of the travel lane on Route 9 in Hadley. But I see nothing in Judge Neiman’s 57-page ruling to support that claim, and I know of no evidence to support it either. Rather, I take Damon’s actions and claims at face value: that, like most of us bicyclists, he was just riding his bike to get from A to B in the way he felt was safest as well as legal.
Do bicyclists need the help of police officers to enforce the law in the name of safety? Certainly, especially when it comes to aggressive or distracted motorists. But stopping bicyclists for riding legally on public roads — even if they do delay some motorists for a few seconds — is a misguided use of resources.
Let’s focus instead on the illegal behavior that has actually been shown by numerous studies to be dangerous, such as motorists passing or turning unsafely and bicyclists riding the wrong way, running red lights or riding at night without lights.
You conclude that “roads are for sharing. And to share, everyone has to give a little ground.” Agreed!
James Lowenthal is president of MassBike/Pioneer Valley.