The positive aspects of Maine’s new bicycle law, which promote safer cycling, are overshadowed by serious flaws in its construction.
The new safety laws are at the expense of motorists’ rights. This new bicycle law requires motorists to prove their innocence in any collision with a cyclist that results in physical injury, regardless of the incident’s cause. This requirement goes against the long upheld judicial norm of being considered innocent until proven guilty, a fundamental right upheld in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In recent years, Portland has become a Mecca for cycling, with numerous city groups conducting organized rides as well as an increase in individual riders. Many streets around the city have designated bike lanes, many of which the USM community uses to commute to campus.
The law passed in June without the governor’s signature, under the name of “An Act to Update and Clarify the Laws Governing the Operation of Bicycles on Public Roadways.” The bill’s aim is to provide safer conditions for cycling within the Maine revised statutes, Title 29-A by clarifying the previous laws. The most notable tipping of the scales of equality came at the end of the bill in Section 5. Previous law set the “three-foot rule” that required a motorist leave a distance of at least three feet between their vehicle and a bicyclist while passing them. The new law clarifies those conditions; it includes that if a collision between a motor vehicle and a bicycle occurs, resulting in bodily injury to the bicyclist, the motorist is automatically presumed guilty of violating the three-foot rule. This inclusion in the law is a grave injustice to Maine motorists.
In attempting to increase motorist accountability concerning cyclist safety, this portion of the law creates unjust circumstances in which motworists must prove their innocence. While the city is making it easier to be a cyclist, the reality is, that Maine is a rural place and vehicles must be driven to get from A to B. Motorists need protection under the law , too. The motorist is now charged with having to prove their innocence in a situation, rather than the judicial norm of being recognized innocent until proven guilty. We need rules that provide bicycle safety without degrading the basic rights of motorists.
The requirement that a bicyclist must operate as far to the right portion of the road as possible except when it’s unsafe to do so, is one of the only changes in the updated law that places the responsibility on the cyclist, rather than the motorist. All other safety changes in the law place too much responsibility on the motorist. Proposed alternative methods for increasing bicycle safety on public roadways include requiring registration plates, inspection stickers and mandatory courses for young cyclists. Registration plates would help to identify cyclists and instill them with a greater sense of accountability for their actions. State inspections would ensure not only the safe operation of bicycles, they would promote safe operating conditions for everyone on the roadway. A mandatory cycling safety course could provide the education necessary for young cyclists to use public roadways prudently.
This gives cyclists an unfair additional right to legal protection. There are adequate alternative methods for ensuring safe cycling besides the methods of the new law––methods that do not jeopardize the rights of the motorists. A balance must be struck in the spirit of sharing the road, but this time, we need to look out for the interest of motorists.
Bryan Bonin is a senior political science major with a concentration in law.