A brewing bike law debate

As the number of cyclists grows, police are working to educate riders about traffic laws and legislators are trying to change them 

David Brown was wrapping up his routine bicycle commute on a Wednesday in late August when he rolled through a familiar stop sign about a block from his house, just as he had done countless times before.

“I don’t think it’s dangerous if you are an aware bicyclist and you check out what’s going on at the intersection,” said the Kenny resident who regularly bikes to and from work in St. Paul. “If there’s nobody there, you can go through it and it’s not endangering anybody.”

The police officer that stopped Brown, siren blaring and lights flashing, didn’t follow that creed and wrote him a $128 ticket for failure to stop.

“I was surprised because I have been in the bike community for the past few years and I haven’t run into any issues with that at all,” Brown said.

It’s the law in Minnesota for bicyclists to follow the same rules of the road as motorists, but some cyclists are unaware of those restrictions and others choose not to follow them. The latter group is backing proposed legislation that would give cyclists more lenience at stop signs and lights, but for now, breaking the law can be costly as police are keeping a close eye on the city’s growing bike traffic. 

Education and enforcement

Police in Southwest started a campaign to spread the word about bike laws about a year ago, distributing information at community meetings and in local newspapers.

“Last summer and into the fall we noticed and we were getting complaints from a lot of people in the Uptown area — and I personally noticed when I was out on the street — that (cyclists) were not obeying traffic laws,” said 5th Precinct Insp. Kris Arneson. “Which is dangerous for the person riding the bike and dangerous for the person driving their car.”

Arneson said she’s stopped cyclists herself and is always surprised by the lack of education about the law. Common bike infractions include running stop signs and lights, riding the wrong way down one-way roads and riding on sidewalks, which is illegal in business districts.

“I really do believe that people just don’t think about it because it’s so easy to run a stop sign or to slip down a one-way street because that’s what bikes are great for,” said Arneson, an avid cyclist. “They’re a fast mode of transportation that can go where cars can’t go.”

Arneson said the majority of bike violations result in warnings rather than tickets, but officers regularly ask for identification and if a ticket is issued, it will go on the offender’s driving record just as any other moving violation would.

Using common sense is most important when approaching intersections on a bike, Arneson said, and the cyclists who get cited are often putting themselves or others in danger. Arneson said she’s guilty of occasionally running stop signs on her bike and wouldn’t be opposed to tweaking the law as Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, and Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan, proposed last May.
  
A controversial idea

Kahn and Carlson’s proposal, which will be reintroduced during the next legislative session, amends Minnesota bike law to allow cyclists to pass through stop signs and lights in certain situations.

Bikers approaching a stop sign would have to slow to a speed that would allow them to stop quickly but could proceed without stopping if no vehicles are in the area, according to the proposal.

Cyclists approaching a stoplight could make a left turn on a one-way street or a right turn without stopping. They could also ride through the intersection at a red light, but only after coming to a full stop and determining no cars are nearby.

The idea is based on an Idaho statute and has been hotly debated since it was introduced.

“It’s one of the more polarizing issues that I’ve ever dealt with, I think,” said Kahn, a regular cyclist.

A main argument for changing the law is that cyclists lose momentum at stop signs and regaining it is much more difficult than stepping on a gas pedal in a car. Kahn also said following existing traffic laws leaves bicyclists exposed to Minnesota’s often-harsh weather for longer periods of time.

Cyclist Dave Cracauer, who was ticketed in July for riding through a light downtown, is a supporter of Kahn and Carlson’s efforts. He said riding through an intersection when no vehicles are around is safer than waiting for the intersection to get congested and navigating simultaneously with cars across multiple lanes. That’s what he would have had to do to avoid his ticket, he said.

Getting tagged hasn’t changed his opinions about bike law, but it has changed the way he rides — a little.

“I don’t run lights downtown anymore,” he said. “Once I get up into my neighborhood I look to see if there are any cops around, but there’s so many stop signs that if I were to stop at all of them I’d probably pass out before I got home.”

Justin Eibenholz, who occasionally commutes from his Armatage home to work in the Como neighborhood, said he’d be in favor of modifying the law to allow cyclists to treat stop signs as yields if no cars were within a certain distance from a residential intersection. But he doesn’t think the law should be changed entirely.

“Eliminating the stop sign law would put more cyclists at risk and create a gray area for motorists and cyclists alike,” he said.

Doreen Hartzell, of Whittier, said cyclists who do not stop at intersections cause problems for motorists who do stop.

“Primarily because in areas without a bike lane, I can’t safely pass and give a cyclist enough room if there are oncoming cars,” she said. “Given the usual speed difference, this often means I pass a bike, get passed by the cyclist at the next stop sign or light, get stuck behind them and have to pass again, etc.”

No hard feelings

Brown, 39, is a more cautious, though not completely law-abiding, cyclist since getting his ticket.

“I definitely look behind me a little more frequently,” he said. “And I’ll probably get a rear view mirror.”

He said he’s always been aware of the law, but never thought he’d be cited for something he and other cyclists do on a regular basis. He’s got no gripes with police but has become a strong backer of the legislative effort to change the rules of the road as they apply to bikes.

 “I wasn’t mad at the officer, and I’m not mad that the law is the way it is,” Brown said. “But it did give me some energy to potentially change the law or to raise awareness about this just because I think this is a sort of common sense rule to change.”

For more information on Minnesota bike laws, visit the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s website, www.dot.state.mn.us.

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or jweyer@mnpubs.com.

Who’s at fault?

As the number of bicyclists in the city grows, so does the potential for car-bike collisions.

“With each year we get more calls because people seem to be riding their bikes more than they used to,” said Dan Meshbesher, a partner with Meshbesher Law Firm in Minneapolis, which offers bike-accident litigation.

Meshbesher said Minnesota’s No Fault Act entitles a cyclist involved in a crash with a car to up to $20,000 in medical expenses and $20,000 in wage loss regardless of who caused the accident. Those payments would be made by the car owner’s insurance company, or in the case of a non-insured driver, the bicyclist’s car insurance company, Meshbesher said.

A cyclist can also bring a claim against the motorist for other physical or mental damages.