Editorial: A wise ruling on bicyclist’s use of Route 9 in Hadley

Last modified: Wednesday, September 11, 2013

This just in: When pedaling along a public road, bicyclists should ride as close to the right as they can safely, allowing vehicles to pass. Common sense? Yes. Agreed to by all? Unfortunately, no.

It took U.S. Magistrate Judge Kenneth P. Neiman 54 pages in a recent decision to sort through complaints and counter-claims related to an Easthampton man’s decision to probe bicycling’s boundaries while traveling on Route 9 in Hadley.

The magistrate wrote that both sides of this dispute — Eli Damon and his attorney, Andrew M. Fischer of Boston, and the Hadley Police Department, represented by Carole Sakowski Lynch of Springfield — were misinterpreting state law.

Neiman’s description of what’s actually legal seems closer to what Hadley police were arguing. As the magistrate put it: “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 and his attorney had argued he had a right to ride in the center of a lane. Hadley police say that in a section of Route 9 with two travel lanes in each direction, Damon rode in the middle of the lane closest to the side of the road; as traffic backed up behind him, he waved for drivers to pass him in the travel lane available to the left.

The case isn’t quite over, though. Neiman ruled that a jury will decide whether two Hadley police officers who went out on calls related to Damon are guilty of malicious prosecution, illegal seizure of property and civil rights violations. Police had stopped Damon three times in 2009 and 2010, one time taking his bicycle and a video camera attached to his helmet. Police later pursued charges of disorderly conduct and illegal wiretapping (because of his camera), but those were tossed by an Eastern Hampshire District Court judge. Damon has said he wanted to record his interaction with police in order to protect himself. But by gearing up with a camera, he seemed to expect a confrontation; he claimed what he got was harassment. Civil disobedience usually looks to police like provocation, so it was little surprise officers got up in Damon’s grill — or make that fenders. Damon’s 2011 U.S. District Court complaint, by the way, did not seek money. He wanted to prove a point.

One issue that will come up at the trial is whether Hadley police erred by telling Damon he would be arrested the next time he was found riding in the middle of a travel lane. Neiman went so far as to say that “an objectively reasonable officer would have known that such threats ... were unlawful.”

What are we to make of all this skirmishing?

Though the magistrate makes clear bicyclists have the right to use roads, too many motorists seem to think riders have no place on public ways. Damon’s decision to ride in the middle of a travel lane pushed back against that, with predictable results.

This business of sharing the road is fraught. We have published scores of letters over the years from bicyclists and motorists, each accusing the other side of taking liberties. Drivers like to point out that while bicyclists insist they have rights to the road, some don’t obey traffic laws. Bicyclists tell of aggressive drivers who endanger them. All of that happens. We’re glad Neiman’s ruling went the way it did. If it had supported Damon’s claim riders can use the middle of a travel lane, people would get hurt. Even if lawful, it wouldn’t be safe.

The Damon case could inflame the old dispute. It would be better for all if people accepted Neiman’s ruling that roads are for sharing. And to share, everyone has to give a little ground.


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