05 January 2018

Is Five Feet Enough?

He survived a slaughter or a massacre, depending on how you view it.

Paul Gobble, a photographer and rider, was out for a weekly Tuesday-evening ride with fellow cyclists of "The Chain Gang."  

At that moment, police were searching for a blue Chevy pickup truck after, within minutes, three separate callers reported that it was being driven "erratically" along roads near Kalamazoo, Michigan.  

One of those roads was the one on which Gobble and his friends had been riding.  But the police couldn't get to that truck before it plowed into "The Chain Gang."

Gobble is still recovering from the brain injury and broken bones he suffered that day, in June of 2016.  But Melissa Fevig-Hughes, Suzanne Sippel, Debbie Bradley, Tony Nelson and Larry Paulik have no such opportunity:  They were killed almost instantly as that truck plowed into them.

Like many of us who haven't (yet) been as unfortunate as he was on that day, he says there is "a great deal of ignorance" about cyclists' right to use the road.  Moreover, he says too many drivers are "just angry that we're out there." So, "they yell at us" and "drive aggressively toward us," he points out.

The implication of his remarks, and those of other Michigan cyclists, is that the Wolverine State has been slow to protect cyclists.  Perhaps that is not surprising in a state that is home to Motor City, a.k.a. Detroit, where many workers' jobs have been lost or threatened in recent years.  Since I am not an economist, I will not get into all of the reasons for the decline of the auto industry in Michigan and other parts of the United States.  But I think it's fair to say that some whose livelihoods have been sustained by the internal combustion engine might see--inaccurately--cyclists as "The Enemy", or at least a manifestation of all of the changes that, in their minds, endanger their way of life.

Of course, such thoughts may not have been in the mind of Charles E. Pickett, the driver of that truck.  His vision may well have been impaired by substances rather than a faulty socio-economic analysis that day.  No matter:  He drove into a group of cyclists, killing five and injuring four others, including Gobble.

Other than stopping someone like Pickett from driving in the first place, what can prevent motorists from running down cyclists--particularly those like Gobble and The Chain Gang, who had more than a century of cycling experience between them?

Most planning and lawmaking related to this question seems to be predicated on the notion that bikes and cars must be separated as much as possible.  That, I believe, is the thinking behind most bike lane construction.  It also seems to be the philosophy behind laws like the one that has been proposed in Michigan.  It would require motorists to give cyclists a five-foot berth when passing them.  Current Michigan law stipulates only that vehicles pass at "a safe distance."  Furthermore, that regulation has been interpreted to apply only to motor vehicles, not bicycles.

Eight other states have laws with language much like that of Michigan's.  Thirty other states, and the District of Columbia, mandate a three-foot berth.  One of those states, South Dakota, requires 6 feet when the motor vehicle is traveling at 35 or more MPH.  North Carolina specifies a two-foot berth, except in no-passing zones, where four feet are required.  Pennsylvania stipulates a four-foot buffer zone in all situations.

While some laud members of the Michigan Legislature for giving long-overdue attention to the safety of cyclists--whose numbers are growing--others wonder just how effective such laws actually are.  Studies have reached conflicting conclusions about whether three-foot laws, as they're often called, actually keep cyclists from being struck by motorists.  For one thing, such laws--like the ones prohibiting cell phone use while driving--are difficult to enforce.  For another, it may be close to impossible for a driver to give such a berth on narrow roads, especially if there is oncoming traffic.  

Most important, though, I think that such laws are most useful after the fact because they provide "something you can ticket," in the words of Becky Callender, whose son was riding in a single file of cyclists on a rural road near Lansing  when he was struck by an SUV.  They are not a substitute for driver awareness of, and courtesy toward, cyclists.  But, I suppose, having such laws is better than not having them--or a poorly-designed bike lane.


  1. Over the years I've been involved in my share of cyclist/motorist incidents. I cannot remember a police officer who had the slightest clue about cyclists rights. Education of all road users, including police, should be a priority.
    Even with a 3 foot, 4 foot etc. etc. law in place, a lone cyclist has almost no chance of legal recourse against a lying motorist. This is a fact of life that I doubt will change during my lifetime.

  2. Louis--You are so right about police officers. All of them seem to reflexively blame cyclists in any incident. And your comment about lying motorists is spot-on.