Police Chief Mark Mew: Rules of the road for bicyclists and motorists

By Anchorage Police Chief Mark MewFebruary 25, 2014 

There has been a lot of discussion lately about bike safety and conflict between bicyclists and motorists. This issue is not new to Anchorage, but the tragic death of Eldridge Griffith on Jan. 2 has intensified the debate.

I can tell from comments -- and from my own observations and experience -- that a lot of people in Anchorage don't understand bike-related traffic laws. This is true of cyclists and drivers alike.

We have safe drivers and riders, but we also have plenty of each who are inconsiderate, aggressive and dangerous. As a year-round cyclist, driver and career police officer, I've lived this issue from all sides.

Anchorage's traffic code changed in some key respects in early 2011. Those changes were the result of discussions among the APD traffic unit, cyclists, the municipal traffic engineer, a nationally known bike traffic consultant, an assembly member, a city attorney -- and me. We all studied, debated and eventually agreed on the key changes.

The Assembly approved the changes. We believe they will improve safety for cyclists and drivers on the roads, and mitigate conflicts between cyclists and other users on trails. Here are some of the general concepts that, if followed, will keep drivers and riders safe and legal.

For drivers

Bikes can use the road. This is not new or unique to Anchorage. What is new is the number of cyclists. Cycling is exploding in popularity, and drivers and riders must get used to being around each other.

As a general rule, cyclists must stay to the right part of the right lane. However, they can "take the lane" (meaning occupy the entire lane) when necessary to avoid parked cars, obstructions or debris on the road. They are also allowed to change lanes to the left, when necessary to be in the correct turn or through lane.

When they take a lane, cyclists may ride two abreast, but never more.

Cyclists must signal lane changes, turns and stops. At night, they must have lights on.

To pass a cyclist, you must pass on the left and give the bike at least three feet of clearance.

For cyclists

Decide whether you're a "car" or a "pedestrian." If you choose to ride in the road, you're a "car." On sidewalks and multi-use trails, you're a "pedestrian."

If you're in the street, obey all traffic laws just as if you were driving an automobile. Ride fast -- riding in the road is not casual; if you want to move at a dawdling pace, get on the sidewalk.

Be decisive in your movements so drivers understand your intentions. Use hand signals. Make sure you're easy to see by using proper equipment and clothing.

In the downtown business district, ride in the street. Sidewalk riding there is illegal.

If you ride on sidewalks or trails, go slow. You're a "pedestrian" sharing space with other pedestrians. You must ride at a speed that is "reasonable and prudent" considering conditions and your fellow users.

When crossing a driveway or intersection (obeying the signal light and using the crosswalk if there is one), you must ride slower than 10 mph. If you cross a driveway or intersection faster than 10 mph, you lose any right-of-way you might otherwise have had under the code.

Be predictable. Don't jump back and forth between street and sidewalk. Choose the rules you want to operate under and stay with them until your route requires you to switch.

Remember, even if you are legally right, you won't come out on top in a vehicle-bike collision. Be smart: swallow your pride and ride defensively.

For everyone

Riding in traffic isn't as dangerous as it seems. Riding on sidewalks is more dangerous than it seems, particularly when the rider is going against the flow of traffic, which is often unavoidable.

Drivers emerging from driveways, alleys and side streets often do not stop at the sidewalk or crosswalk, as required by law. They often do stop at the street. Many drivers turning right look left but not right. They don't see the sidewalk rider coming from their right.

Riders on the street fare much better. First, they are never forced into the "counter-flow" situation, and second, even the driver who crosses a sidewalk without looking will look before entering the street.

Another dangerous situation involves a driver turning right on a green light, and a cyclist crossing straight in a crosswalk. The driver has often overtaken the cyclist, who is to the driver's right, on the sidewalk, without having noticed the cyclist is there. The cyclist ends up in the crosswalk as the driver turns. The cyclist gets hit.

The best long-term solution to these situations may be painted "bike lanes" on the road. The traffic code and the Anchorage Bike Plan both anticipate bike lanes, but so far few exist.

Bike lanes work well in the Lower 48. They seem to be intuitive for drivers and riders. It remains to be seen how well they work with snow on the road.

In the meantime, we have well-reasoned laws that should work -- if we know them and exercise a little courtesy.

Here's a hint for drivers: Make eye contact and add a nod or a thumbs-up to let the cyclist know you see him and it's safe to proceed. A biker really appreciates that.

Here's one for cyclists: Acknowledge attentive drivers with a wave. It'll go a long way toward getting you the acceptance you desire.

The Anchorage Municipal Code can be found at www.muni.org. The relevant code is AMC 9.16.030, 9.16.095, 9.18.060, and the entirety of 9.38. 

Mark Mew is chief of police in Anchorage. He recently received his instructor certification from the League of American Bicyclists.

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