In July 2012, Lois Levin, Newton’s Bicycle Coordinator, teamed up with Howard Mintz, Newton’s Chief of Police, to clarify state and local laws regarding bicycles and motorists. The helpful legal summary originally appeared as a Newton TAB guest editorial on July 13, 2012 :
Every day, every week, more and more cyclists are using Newton streets for transportation – to work, to do local errands, to get to important destinations. Cycling is environmentally friendly and a user-friendly way to be healthy.
To accommodate the growing numbers of cyclists, motorists need to recognize the right of all road users to be on our streets and to adapt to their needs so they will be safe.
The following information—about Massachusetts laws around bicycling and driving with cyclists in the road—is from MassDOT (the state Department of Transportation) and MassBike (the state bicycle coalition).
· Bicyclists are vehicles. The law states that bikes can drive in the middle of the lane, especially when the cyclist feels it is safer to do so. There are times when this may slow motor vehicles, but cycling actually reduces traffic congestion: every cyclist on the road means one less car on the road.
· Motor vehicle operators need to allow safe distances when passing cyclists. Squeezing too closely is dangerous if a cyclist loses balance. Motor vehicles’ side mirrors can be dangerous if they extend too close to cyclists.
· Motor vehicle drivers should be predictable: abrupt turns can cause crashes. A number of recent crashes in Newton have happened because drivers turned suddenly and cyclists couldn’t stop in time. Fortunately, the injuries were not fatal. Motorists need to watch for cyclists, make eye contact whenever possible and always signal before turning. They should not try to hurry through their turn before the cyclist. A person on a 25+ pound bike has the right of way over a person behind the wheel of a 3000+ pound vehicle.
· Before opening a door on either side of a motor vehicle, check for approaching bicycles. State law allows for a $100 fine if you “door” a cyclist; more importantly, cyclists can be seriously injured, or killed, by a door opening abruptly in their path.
· Bike lanes are for bikes. Motor vehicles must stay out of them (although they can cross over a dashed line when making turns). Cyclists are not required to ride in bike lanes.
· Honking is seldom necessary. Most cyclists use sideview mirrors and/or turn their heads frequently, so they are aware of oncoming traffic. Honking is much louder outside of a car than what the driver is aware of inside his/her car. An unexpected, and often unnecessary, loud noise can startle a bicyclist and cause a crash.
Cyclists: Ride Smarter
· Take some space. You have a legal right to the road, so use it when you need to: stay a safe distance from car doors and don’t squeeze between lanes.
· Be courteous. Two cyclists can ride side-by-side, but get into single file if cars can’t pass safely.
· Ride in the same direction as vehicular traffic, and ride as straight as you can—don’t weave between parked cars or into crosswalks.
· Stop on red. Take a minute to relax at red lights and stop signs; set a good example for everyone else on the road. Newton’s most recent cyclist tragedy happened when a cyclist sped through a red light.
· Light up. If you are riding at night, state law requires you to have a headlight and a taillight. They are smart accessories—they help you see the road, but more importantly, they let everyone else see you. In fact, blinking lights on helmets, clothing and bicycles during the day make you more visible, whether in sunshine, clouds or rain. Wear light-colored – preferably high visibility clothing in the day and at night.
· Be courteous to pedestrians. Just as bicycles have the right of way over motor vehicles; pedestrians have the right of way over bicycles and motor vehicles.
· There is no law in Massachusetts that requires adults to wear a helmet, but to protect your brain, wear one when you cycle. The Newton Police have free helmets for children whose parents can’t afford them (state law requires every cyclist under 17 to wear one). New Balance has discounted ones at their outlet store in Allston. Don’t take a chance. Set a good example for your children and their friends.
We have listed some of the basics here. For more information, visit: SameRoadsSameRules.org. Enjoy the freedom of the summer road, and stay safe!
Capt. Howard Mintz is a member of the Newton Police Department. Lois Levin is the Bicycle Coordinator for the City of Newton