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Drivers and Cyclists Must Mix

Clifford's Notes, Chicago Lawyer October 3, 2013

By Robert A. Clifford

A man called my office over the summer with a potential case. He is a professional who lives on the Near North Side of Chicago and rides his bike downtown to and from work nearly every day. He considers himself a highly experienced bicyclist, having ridden thousands of miles in his life — including across the country.

One day after work as he is riding in the bike lane on LaSalle Street, a motorist becomes enraged that he is allowed to be on the street.

They exchange a few words at a red light and when they both begin their journey again, the driver intentionally strikes his bike three times.

The third time, he flies over his handlebars and hits the ground. The driver takes off and two other motorists take chase, returning her to the scene.

The driver is ticketed and the bicyclist, lucky to be alive, goes to the hospital to find that he fortunately is only a bit battered and bruised, including a broken finger.

Stories like these seem to be more common as we now see more people using the Divvy public bike-share program instituted throughout the city.

Those bright blue bikes are encouraged for many to get to their destinations in an eco-friendly way.

Within the year, Chicago’s blue bikes are expected to number 4,000, with 400 docking stations — the second largest bike-sharing program in the country. The city also is building more protected bike lanes, which already includes 645 miles of bike-lane network. It’s here to stay.

But it is clear that bikes and cars don’t mix, particularly on busy city streets: cabs; buses; people in a hurry; the unprotected bicyclist trying to avoid those making left turns, right turns; people passing; and people getting out of vehicles. Although Chicago’s streets are flat, the road design is often not wide enough to accommodate both types of vehicles.

It is estimated that some 20,000 people ride their bikes to work every day in Chicago, a number that appears to be growing every year.

And Mayor Rahm Emanuel is encouraging even more people to take to two wheels. Earlier this year, he proposed more stringent rules regarding both motorists involved in accidents with bicyclists and for those on bicycles who don’t observe the law.

On June 5, the City Council passed the 2013 Bicycle Safety Ordinance consisting of a series of amendments, which brought Chicago’s traffic code into compliance with state bicycle and pedestrian laws.

Although the new ordinance gives cyclists more leeway, it also imposes harsher penalties on them as well as on motorists for violations.

Fines for “dooring” (when a person in a vehicle opens the door and the bicyclist is unable to avoid the sudden obstruction) are doubled with motorists having to pay $1,000, up from $500.

At the same time, fines for cyclists who break the law increased from $25 to $50 to $200.

Under the new ordinance, bicyclists are now allowed to pass slower moving vehicles on the right side, although they must yield to passengers who are exiting vehicles which have not pulled to the curb. This applies to bus passengers alighting as well.

An issue that may come up are cab drivers who allow passengers to exit without completely pulling over to the curb.

The ordinance states that bicyclists must yield once the passenger who has been discharged has exited the vehicle.

That allows an approaching bicyclist to see a door open for a long enough period of time to avoid an exiting person. All traffic enforcement is directed to everyone exercising due caution.

Cyclists also are allowed to ride on sidewalks to get to roads, paths and new bike-sharing stations. Riders are allowed to ride side-by-side so long as they stay in one lane and do not impede traffic, according to the amended ordinance.

Chicago was found to be the 10th-best bicycling town in the United States — the only city to be named in the Midwest.

But that doesn’t take away more than 1,600 bicycle accidents that occurred in the city in 2012.

In Europe, bicycles are everywhere. American motorists are not accustomed to the mix and it will take some time for that to occur.

In the meantime, I predict that the injuries and deaths will rise in the absence of an attitude adjustment by all who use the roadways.

Many bicyclists take offense at not getting the respect they rightfully deserve, but when it is a car versus a bicycle, I predict that the car will always win. It reminds me of the cliche of taking a knife to a gunfight.

All of this means a greater awareness of bicyclists is necessary on Chicago’s streets.

If that means more motorists get ticketed, so be it. If that means more bicyclists get tickets, that’s OK, too.

And if it takes everyone a bit longer to get to their destinations than expected, that’s a small price to pay for getting there safely.

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