Elkhart's new 3-foot buffer rule helps increase bicycle awareness — and safety

As the 3-foot buffer rule takes hold, cyclists should face fewer risks from cars, trucks and SUVs. And that will make our roadways safer.

Posted on Aug. 9, 2014 at 8:10 p.m.

The car always wins.

Or the SUV or pickup or delivery van.

Bicycles don’t stand a chance in a collision with something that weighs — in the case of a big SUV — upward of 5,500 pounds.

The Elkhart City Council approved a rule last week requiring drivers to give bicyclists a 3-foot buffer. Critics immediately derided it as a stunt to generate more city revenue.

No, it’s an effort to save the lives of bicyclists.

Statistics show 91 collisions in Elkhart between motorized vehicles and bicycles since 2010. Motorists and bicyclists split the blame in about two-thirds of the accidents.

So does that mean cyclists need to pay more attention to traffic? Without question, yes. They put their lives at risk when they ride carelessly.

But the burden is greater on motorists for two reasons: 1) Because they drive bigger, faster vehicles, and 2) too many of them view bicyclists as enemies — or, at the very least, two-wheeled pests who deserve to be harassed.

Take this comment by user Rickverde on elkharttruth.com:

@Rick Wright

I agree Rick, most bike people are serious jerks, they think they own the road and everyone is supposed to get out of their way. Like oil and water, cars and bycycles (sic) will never mix.

Another user, Kate, writes from a cyclist’s perspective:

… What happens at a stoplight when a bicycle stops IN THE LANE, behind the cars (where they have a LEGAL right to be) ... I'll tell you what happens — they get honked at, cussed at and nearly run over by the impatient jerks in cars.

Indiana law says that on most roadways, cyclists have the same rights and responsibilities as anyone else. The exceptions — limited-access highways, expressways and other marked roadways prohibiting bicycles.

The law requires motorists to yield the right-of-way to bicycles just as they would any other vehicle. And cyclists don’t need to use designated bicycle lanes; they can use the travel lane, if they wish.

They’re just entitled to the road as Rickverde or anyone else. Yet in Elkhart, cars and bicycles tangled nearly a hundred times since 2010 — and that’s despite a state recommendation to give bikes a 3-foot buffer zone when passing.

City councilors took the next logical step when they passed Monday’s ordinance against buzzing bikes. If drivers don’t already know that they need to give cyclists at least 3 feet, perhaps the possibility of a $25 fine will help improve awareness of the law.

Which is the whole point.

A $25 fine isn’t going to create a city budget surplus. But the ordinance creates an opportunity for cyclists, law enforcement and civic groups to begin educating the public about the 3-foot buffer. At least for the moment, that’s our best hope of addressing bicycle safety.

Cars always win. That won’t change because of the city’s new rule. Nor can the ordinance guarantee an end to collisions between bikes and cars in Elkhart — especially if cyclists ignore traffic laws.

But as the 3-foot buffer rule takes hold, cyclists should face fewer risks from cars, trucks and SUVs. And that will make our roadways safer.

For everyone.

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