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Sen. Rick Kolowski

Sen. Rick Kolowski

District 31

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LB39: Bicycle Safety

January 20th, 2015

We had our first public hearing today on a bill I introduced to support people who ride bicycles. Here is a great article from today’s front page of the Omaha World Herald about this legislation.

  • Marty Shukert, who has been cycling to work for 38 years, rides Saturday near 38th and Farnam Streets. Shukert said any law designed to protect cyclists is a good thing. But he also said “bicyclists have important responsibilities” to follow traffic laws and ride courteously. “In other words,” he said, “everyone needs to give a little bit.”

POSTED: TUESDAY, JANUARY 20, 2015 1:00 AM

LINCOLN — An avid cyclist, 56-year-old Jim Johnston was just a few months into his retirement when he was struck and killed while riding his bike on Omaha’s West Center Road 10 months ago.

Former colleagues at Millard West High School, where Johnston had been a longtime teacher and athletic trainer, openly wept when told of his death.

“It just ripped the hearts out of the kids and the community when that happened,” said State Sen. Rick Kolowski, a former Millard West principal who had hired Johnston.

In September, a Lincoln cyclist, Douglas Dalke, had signaled a left-hand turn off of Lincoln’s Saltillo Road when he was struck from behind by a drunken driver and killed.

Dalke was widely known in the Capital City’s cycling community and was on a popular, but increasingly congested, cycling route around the south side of the city.

“It hit hard because he rode the same places we all ride,” said Brent Davis, a fellow rider from Lincoln.

Davis, the chairman of the board of the Nebraska Bicycling Alliance, and other riders will join Kolowski today at the State Capitol in search of improved state bicycling safety laws.

Three years ago, lawmakers passed a law that requires motorists to provide at least 3 feet of clearance, when possible, when passing cyclists on a roadway.

But Davis and others said that wasn’t enough.

“There was no education, no signage. Heck, a lot of law enforcement didn’t know about it,” he said.

Kolowski has introduced two bills in the Nebraska Legislature to stiffen penalties and seek a larger cushion of safety between bikes and cars.

With the increased use of bicycles as recreation and transportation, he said it’s time to update and improve state laws.

“Part of it is to raise awareness: Please be cautious and considerate of the cyclists who are using the same area that you are using,” the senator said.

One of his proposals, Legislative Bill 39, would require motorists to follow the same rules of the road when passing a bicycle as they do when passing a car: that means changing lanes to pass on a four-lane roadway, and crossing the center line to pass on a two-lane road. If a road is narrower than two lanes, the proposal calls for providing no less than 3 feet of clearance when passing.

Davis said the bill would make it easier for motorists to remember the passing rules and easier for law enforcement to enforce them.

LB 39 would also repeal a 1968 “mandatory sidepath” law that requires cyclists to utilize a bike path if one exists adjacent to a roadway. The proposal also gives cyclist the right of way when crossing a road in a crosswalk.

Right now, if a cyclist is struck by a vehicle while in a crosswalk, the cyclist could be ticketed for failing to yield the right of way, Davis said.

Most states have repealed their “sidepath” laws, he said.

For cyclists, there are times when they must get off a bike path. For instance, sometimes a path is poorly maintained or blocked, said Marty Shukert, a former Omaha city planning director who is also on the bicycling alliance board. Use of such sidepaths should not be mandatory, he said.

A second bill from Kolowski, LB 38, would increase the penalty for a motorist who carelessly strikes and either kills or injures a “vulnerable user” of a roadway. Such a user could be a cyclist, jogger, rescue squad member or highway construction worker, or someone in a wheelchair, farm tractor or horse-drawn carriage.

LB 38 would make it a Class IV felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. The bill also would allow a judge to revoke a motorist’s driver’s license for up to 15 years.

Twenty-three states have similar vulnerable user laws.

Kolowski said the purpose of LB 38 was to get people’s attention, and while his main focus is cycling, he wanted to define vulnerable users as broadly as possible.

“I know a number of people who are avid bikers. They’re really concerned,” he said.

The League of American Bicyclists ranks Nebraska near the bottom, 45th, as a “bicycle-friendly state.” It gets downgraded, Davis said, because it lacks a “complete streets” policy that requires planners to always consider cyclists when designing a roadway but also because of a lack of safety measures such as those proposed by Kolowski.

By contrast, Iowa ranks 25th as a bike-friendly state, though a push is on there too for stiffer penalties for unsafe passing following the cycling death in June of Shawn Gosch of Onawa. Still, Iowa has twice as many “bicycle-friendly” communities as Nebraska — six compared to three.

Shukert, whose private planning company is the only one in Nebraska to get a “gold” rating for its bicycle friendliness from the group, estimated that perhaps 80 percent of motorists already pass by moving over into the next lane.

“It’s the other 15 to 20 percent who are little bit on the scary side,” said Shukert, who has cycled to work for 36 years.

Obviously, Shukert said, motorists should not put themselves in danger when passing a bicyclist, but the two bills would make important safety improvements.

“On the other hand, it’s important to emphasize that bicyclists have important responsibilities: to comply with traffic laws, not be obstructive and be courteous,” Shukert said. “In other words, everyone needs to give a little bit.”

The Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee will hold a public hearing on LB 39 at 1:30 p.m. today at the State Capitol. A public hearing for LB 38 has not yet been set.

Last year, a bike safety bill proposed by then-Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha died in the Legislature. Besides safety measures, it called for better city and state planning for cyclists. But a hefty estimated fiscal impact killed the idea: $300,000 in state costs and $30 million in costs for Omaha to install hundreds of new traffic signals.

Davis, of the Nebraska Bicycling Alliance, said he hopes to avoid any financial barriers with this year’s proposal and just focus on better protecting cyclists.

“You can’t stop all distracted or drunk drivers, but increased safety is the No. 1 goal,” he said.

Sen. Rick Kolowski

District 31
Room #1018
P.O. Box 94604
Lincoln, NE 68509
Phone: (402) 471-2327
Email: rkolowski@leg.ne.gov
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