Like the rest of Ohioans, Fulton County residents must now contend with a new law that requires motorists to create a buffer between themselves and bicyclists with whom they share traffic space.
House Bill 154 passed almost unanimously in both the state House and Senate on Dec. 8, and went into effect March 20. It stipulates that motorists must maintain at least a three-foot distance when passing bicyclists on a roadway. Legislators passed the law after a three-year lobbying effort by the Ohio Bicycle Federation and similar cycling advocates.
The bill was co-sponsored by District 40 State Representative Michael Henne (R-Brookville) and District 46 State Representative Michael Sheehy (D-Oregon). Ohio is the 29th state to enact such legislation.
Henne was approached by constituents about pursuing the new law. “Every bicyclist I’ve spoken to will give you a story, a near-accident experience they’ve had. From my research, (the law) just makes a lot of sense,” he said.
An occasional cyclist, Henne said he’s always appreciated the courtesy of approaching motorists. He added, however, that if he ever encountered a vehicle entering his space, “right or wrong, I would be the loser.”
As a cyclist, Sheehy also has heard numerous stories from others about near-misses. Some told him about vehicles that encroached so menacingly into their space “they felt almost as if it was a threat to them.”
His own son was a victim years ago, when a car clipped him while he was cycling. The impact sent the boy into a ditch but he was not seriously injured.
Sheehy said motorists often forget that, under the Ohio Revised Code, bicycles have a right to be on the road. He said several Ohio communities had already established three-foot barriers between vehicles and bicyclists before the new law was passed.
“It’s just a matter of public safety, and I felt it needed to be encoded in state law,” Sheehy said.
In Pennsylvania, legislators enacted a law in 2012 requiring a four-foot barrier between vehicles and bicycles, a foot wider than required in similar legislation in other states.
Wauseon Police Chief Keith Torbet said motorists know to take due diligence when passing another vehicle, and should know the same applies to them in regard to bicyclists.
“We shouldn’t have to have a law for this, because common sense says you have to give plenty of space to a person on a bike,” he said. “We all know kids don’t necessarily pay attention to people on the road, and we all know those are usually the people on bikes.”
The new law is important for its specific definition of distance necessary to protect bicyclists, Ohio Bicycle Federation Chair Chuck Smith said. Each year, about 700 bicyclists nationwide are killed in collisions with vehicles.
“Many of those deaths are the result of motorists passing too close. It’s teaching the motorists awareness of giving us sufficient distance,” he said.
The OBF is currently working to have the law incorporated into the curriculum of student drivers and into the state driving manual and test.
“Now that we’ve passed the law, we must educate the law,” Smith said.
The organization will honor Henne and Sheehy for their support at its annual Ohio Bicycling Summit, to be held May 2 at the statehouse in Columbus.
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.