Politics & Government

New road rules in Texas? Watch out for bicyclists

Bikers rode in silence along Interstate 20 Service Road in Willow Park in 2010, honoring fallen bicyclists killed along that road — along with the hundreds of other riders killed in accidents every year. The ride also was geared to encourage motorists to share the road with bicyclists.
Bikers rode in silence along Interstate 20 Service Road in Willow Park in 2010, honoring fallen bicyclists killed along that road — along with the hundreds of other riders killed in accidents every year. The ride also was geared to encourage motorists to share the road with bicyclists. STAR-TELEGRAM

Sarah Lutz is wary every time she gets on her bicycle.

When she heads out for a ride, she can’t help remembering the two times she was hit by a car, including one crash that broke her leg and tore up her bicycle.

“I would like to say I feel very safe, but I’m always on high alert,” said Lutz, a 26-year-old pedicab driver in Arlington. “Cars just aren’t looking for bikes; they’re looking for other vehicles.

“So when I’m on my bike, I feel like it’s up to me to make myself seen, and that’s what makes me feel safe more than my helmet does or even a bike lane.”

Lutz and other bicyclists in Texas — many of whom have had near misses with cars — are keeping tabs on legislative measures that they believe would make the roads safer for everyone.

Proposals in the Legislature would give bicyclists more room when a vehicle passes, would require nighttime riders to have lamps on their bikes that shine a steady or flashing light, and would ban texting while driving.

And there’s a new wrinkle this session — a proposal to prevent federal funds from being used to convert more automobile lanes into bike lanes. The Austin-based advocacy group BikeTexas has blasted that idea as “hostile to bicycling in Texas.”

“There are a lot of things we can do to improve conditions for biking and walking,” said Robin Stallings, the group’s executive director. “People in Texas are getting killed every year because they were biking or walking.

“We all have a right to the roadways,” he said. “Anyone who thinks highways are just for cars is very out of sync.”

Many bills geared toward protecting bicyclists have died in past years.

That’s partly because of “skepticism among many legislators regarding the feasibility of enforcing the legislation and the often less visible but not less salient opposition of a wide range of businesses with large fleets of vehicles,” said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.

Bikers feel they have already fended off one proposal this session that could have given them even less right to the road.

Several advocates talked to House members about a recent budget amendment, eventually withdrawn, that would have stopped state and federal dollars from being used to convert automobile lanes into bus or bike lanes.

Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, said his proposal — which could still come up again as an amendment to another bill — isn’t anti-bike.

“Oh, heavens no,” he said. “This would have no impact on new bike lanes or shoulders.”

He said his measure is meant to preserve vehicle lanes.

“Unfortunately, taking existing automobile lanes and converting them to special-purpose lanes — bus or bike — has become a tool to increase gridlock and force people out of their cars,” he said. “It’s happening in Austin.

“Some folks say that the goal is to make the ride as uncomfortable as possible to get people out of their vehicles.”

Health risks

As communities nationwide work to become more bicycle-friendly, the roads aren’t always rider-friendly.

In 2012, 726 people nationwide died in bicycle-car crashes and 49,000 were injured, according to the most recent data from the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center.

Studies show that the number of bicyclist deaths increased by 16 percent from 2010 to 2012. And the average bicyclist killed was a 43-year-old man riding in an urban area.

More than half the deaths in bicycle-car crashes from 2010 to 2012 happened in six states — Texas, California, Florida, Illinois, New York and Michigan — according to a 2014 report from the Governors Highway Safety Association.

In 2010, Texas had 42 bicyclist deaths, which rose to 45 in 2011 and 56 in 2012, the report says.

Bicycling has many benefits — not only aiding a rider’s fitness but also reducing cars on the road and emissions, according to the report.

“However, biking has its own health risks when it occurs on roads shared with motor vehicles,” the report says.

Fort Worth is working to be more bicycle-friendly.

Mayor Betsy Price is known for her Rolling Town Halls, where residents hop on their bikes and talk issues with her during a ride. Red bicycles can be seen around town as part of the city’s bike-sharing program — an effort to get more people out of cars and onto bicycles.

And the city has approved a safe-passing ordinance that requires cars to give bicycles and pedestrians 3 feet of space when passing.

‘David and Goliath battle’

Stallings said he and others work with local, state and federal officials to find ways to protect bicyclists.

They hope Texas will set aside more money to build bike and pedestrian trails instead of just developing more miles of vehicle-dominated roads.

“We feel it’s a little bit of a David and Goliath battle,” he said, adding that billions of dollars are being spent on road construction. “We are one of the few voices out there representing real people.

“It’s a challenge, but we’re not discouraged,” he said. “States everywhere are evolving. People want these kind of facilities.”

But they also want to be safe, which is why bicyclists hope the “safe passing” act will be approved.

It is named for Iris Stagner, a 54-year-old mother of two who was riding her bicycle on a bridge in Palo Pinto County nearly three years ago when she was hit from behind by a truck and killed.

The proposal, House Bill 2459, would require motorists to watch out for “unprotected road users” — pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists. Drivers would have to give those road users 3 feet when passing or turning. Violations would be a Class B misdemeanor.

Two dozen other states already have similar laws, as do a number of Texas cities, including Fort Worth.

“We want to make it uniform statewide,” Stallings said.

The Legislature approved such a measure in 2009, but then-Gov. Rick Perry vetoed it, saying it would have created a new class of entitled “vulnerable road users.”

Paul Harris, 79, a Bedford biker, said the law would help Texans.

“This is a good bill, but it will be hard to enforce,” he said. “By passing it, at least cyclists and motorists will have some legal means to defend themselves in court.”

Other proposals

A look at other issues that bicyclists support in the Legislature:

▪ HB80, the no-texting-while-driving bill. Some studies have shown that motorists who are texting or emailing can be just as dangerous as drunken drivers. That can be deadly for bicyclists.

▪ HB471 would require nighttime riders to have a lamp that shines a steady or flashing white light on the front of their bicycles and a red lamp on the rear. The lights must be visible from at least 500 feet.

▪ HB1136 would create a Transportation Safety and Access Advisory Committee to “study methods, including infrastructure additions such as sidewalks and bicycle lanes,” to make all road users safer.

Other legislative efforts on tap include a measure to let a memorial sign program for motorcyclists include bicyclists, a proposal to let communities lower speed limits in some areas and a bill to let bicyclists and motorcyclists go through red lights if they have waited through at least two cycles where their light didn’t change.

The measures will make roads safer for bicyclists if they become law, said Harris, who has ridden his bike around Tarrant County since the early 1980s.

“I think condemning motorists in general is wrong,” he said. “There are many more good motorists than there are bad ones. Just like there are more good cyclists than there are bad ones.”

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley

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