Michigan: Time to Pass the Vulnerable Roadway User Act

UPDATE 4/29/15: According to the Lansing State Journal, Mitzi Nelson today pleaded “no contest” to the misdemeanor charge of reckless driving resulting in the death of bicyclist Jill Byelich in September 2014. Her sentence could include up to one year of jail time.


 

This one hits close to home – fifteen miles from home, to be exact. From the Lansing State Journal:

Jill Byelich, 35, was struck by a car and killed Tuesday night while riding her bike on West Howe Road, between Francis and South Forest Hill roads. Jill Byelich was riding east when she was struck by an eastbound car driven by a 23-year-old woman who lives nearby, Kangas said. Byelich was taken to Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, where she was pronounced dead.

Byelich leaves behind her husband, Jordan, and two small children. It’s a senseless tragedy, rendered more senseless by the fact that Byelich seemed to be doing everything right: she was wearing a helmet and reflective vest and typically used front and back lights. She was on a flat, straight, low-volume road with good daylight visibility at the time the vehicle hit her.

When a fellow bicyclist dies in such a senseless manner, it raises a whole range of emotions for me. First, grief for her and her family. The loss of a vibrant woman in the prime of her life with two small children is just too grim to contemplate. Second, there’s a jolt of irrational fear. I’ve never biked on West Howe Rd., but it’s just like countless other rural roads I do ride on and write about. I can usually calm this fear with statistics that show that bicycling is a relatively safe activity, yet this has become harder since I’ve started writing posts encouraging others to bicycle on Michigan’s roads.* And finally, I feel anger at the slim likelihood that the driver will be held accountable in any way for this death.

This is what 3 feet looks like (from BikingBis.com). Many cyclists want 5 feet, and in Michigan many drivers move all the way into the oncoming lane.

This is what 3 feet looks like (from BikingBis.com). Many cyclists want 5 feet, and in Michigan many drivers move all the way into the oncoming lane.

Out of such a mix of emotions, it’s normal to look for some sort of solution that would prevent or reduce the likelihood of such an “accident” from happening again. And people are always ready with their solutions, whether it’s claiming that cyclists should abandon their right to ride on the roads and stick to bike paths; suggesting that cyclists should always use rear-view mirrors; or calling for stricter anti-texting laws. But none of these are useful in Byelich’s case. The first is just victim-blaming. According to Michigan law, and the laws of every other state, bicyclists have an absolute right to ride on the roads. Even if she had wanted to stay off the roads, West Howe Rd. lacks sidewalks (as do most rural roads) and no bike paths are available nearby. Using a mirror is certainly helpful, but few cyclists will be able to leap into the ditch in the split second after they realize a speeding car is not going to move over. As for anti-texting laws, police are still investigating whether that or other distracted behavior played a role in this crash. They’ve already ruled out alcohol.

And what if no such distracted behavior is found? There are countless cases of drivers claiming that “the bicyclist came from out of nowhere.” With the cyclist dead and no other witnesses, such a driver faces no penalty at all. Why is it alright to kill a fellow human being for no reason other than random carelessness, but having a “reason” such as texting or inebriation makes it a crime?

Fortunately, the League of Michigan Bicyclists (LMB) is working on a solution that would make drivers take their responsibilities more seriously. It’s called the Vulnerable Roadway User Protection Act, and it’s similar to Andy’s law, which offers stiff penalties for motorists who kill anyone in a construction zone. LMB’s proposal would:

Adopt standards that create enhanced penalties, including community service and driver-improvement education, substantial fines and jail time, in addition to a mandatory one-year license suspension for drivers who injure or kill vulnerable roadway users.

Unfortunately, according to LMB policy director John Lindenmayer, “The vulnerable user bills passed out of committee unanimously with bipartisan support on October 16th, 2013, but have never been scheduled for a floor vote despite continued pressure on Majority Floor Leader Jim Stamas and House Speaker Jase Bolger.” If you’d like to see something actually done to prevent future tragic events such as this one, contacting these two politicians would be a good place to start. Stamas’ phone number is (800) 626-8887. Bolger’s phone number is (517) 373-1787. You can also sign LMB’s petition in support of the bill at www.lmb.org/vru.

Another LMB initiative is having better success. Nathan’s Law, which would enhance driver’s education in Michigan to include more “information concerning the laws pertaining to bicycles and motorcycles and…emphasize awareness of their operation on the streets, roads, and highways of this state,” passed the House unanimously in June and is now up for consideration by the state Senate. LMB has an action alert about this proposal here.

Better driver education and increased penalties for drivers may not be panaceas, but they can’t help but make things safer for conscientious cyclists like Jill Byelich, along with pedestrians and other vulnerable roadway users. Please act now.

UPDATE: A ride of silence for Jill Byelich will be held Sunday, October 5th, at 2:00 p.m., starting in Wacousta, with stops at the crash site, Dewitt, and the state capitol. At 4:00 p.m. there will be a rally on the steps of the capitol in support of the two bicycling bills currently in the legislature. More details here.

UPDATE 2: The driver of the vehicle has been charged with a “misdemeanor moving violation resulting in death” due to being distracted by a cell phone. The maximum penalty is up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. In contrast, under the proposed Vulnerable Roadway User Act, the driver would face maximums of 15 years in jail and $7,500. More from the Lansing State Journal.

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*We can debate forever what the statistics say about the safety of cycling versus other activities. The League of Michigan Bicyclists and ShareMiRoads.org say that bicycling is safer per hour spent than other activities such as driving or snowmobiling. Ken Kifer has a web page analyzing nationwide crash statistics from a cyclist’s point of view. According to state of Michigan crash statistics, 627 drivers or passengers were killed in car accidents in the state in 2013, yet people still drive. 149 pedestrians were killed, yet people still cross the street. Twenty people were killed in snowmobile/ORV accidents, yet people still engage in these activities. Yet something about the 27 deaths of cyclists in the same year just feels more dangerous. It’s also difficult to keep these statistics in mind when a car or pickup is passing two feet away at 55 mph. It just doesn’t feel safe.

Comments

  1. Tom Hardenbergh says:

    California passed a ‘safe passing’ law recently. Comments on a forwarded FB post about it were typically in this vain: ‘get off the road!’. Reformation of attitudes is crucial. Education will do that. Careless driving may never be eliminated, but care-less driving can be.

  2. People riding bikes in the road is VERY ANNOYING! People in cars have enough to worry about without having to worry about the bikers also. Go to a freaking park and ride your damn bike- people in Plymouth,Mi ride all around the city like they own the freaking street! Making a law to keep them off the sidewalks is the redicoulous law! They should only be allowed on the sidewalk- totally disagree on the concept that the vehicle driver will not likely face charges for hitting the bike driver….the person driving the vehicle will always face charges because the PERSON on the bikes stupidity. Roads are for VEHICLES NOT BIKES!!!!!!!!!!!! Get off the DAMN ROADS!!

  3. Brad, you don’t seem to understand Michigan law or your responsibilities as a driver. Nor do you seem to understand the difference between a “concept” and a “fact.” It is certainly a fact that drivers are rarely prosecuted in a car vs. bicycle accident, even when they kill the cyclist.

  4. Gary skriba says:

    I drive many more miles in my pickup than I do my bike. But to be honest, even though I see a small percentage of bicyclists and drivers who don’t know the laws and shouldn’t be on the roads until they improve their attitudes and take classes to learn or remember the rules and primarily the common sense courtesy and safe driving techniques to safely enjoy the privilege of using our road system. And just by the sheer numbers of cars and the sheer massive weight and speed of cars makes them potentially 1000s of times more of a menace to society than some one’s child or a Newbee on a bike. I seldom ever get held up dealing with a bicyclist per day, but with cars? It’s a constant threat, with long wait times and constant congestion even in small towns! And having to deal with too many motorists who mistakenly think they own the roads.

  5. Brad, if you came across other slow moving vehicles, say a farm tractor or a funeral procession, do you get as upset? I doubt it, you just deal with it and slow down, move over and pass when safe right? Right. Unfortunately for way too many bicyclists we don’t have the protection of a farm tractor or a car in a funeral procession and can be easily harrassed, bullied and even killed due to often to the impatience or lack of regard for the life of another human being.

    By the way, did you know that our current roadway system is the result of a lot of hard work of the bicyclists of this nation? Yes, that’s right, the League of American Wheelmen (bicyclists of yore) worked very hard on a campaign called the “Good Roads Movement” Read all about it here and then the next time you see a bicyclist in the road stop and thank him or her for the great roads we all enjoy!
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Good_Roads_Movement

  6. Roads are not just for cars. Except limited access highways, and even those you have to share with trucks and buses. On every other road you have to share with other users, like horse-drawn carriages, pedestrians, farm implements, street sweepers, motor scooters, and bicycles. That’s not new either.

  7. Good points, Thomas and Tim.

  8. Tom Hardenbergh says:

    I think Brad is a blog-bomber. Can there really be a person with such a ill-informed and hateful attitude out there? Don’t waste any more of your precious time with his post. Let’s just hope if he is the troglodyte he apes in his post, he never encounters a bicyclist while driving.

  9. wow … so sad people actually THINK a cyclist should be on a sidewalk. Here is why we are NOT to be on a sidewalk. Cars pull in and out of driveways without looking down the sidewalk to see if I a pedaling in their path. Also, if I am crossing the street at a sidewalk, cars can easily not pay attention and turn right, right into me. Very dangerous. I have met cyclists who are road hogs, but wear the “share the road” jerseys. I have seen it more than once. However, just because a car is bigger doesn’t mean it dominates the road. Is a life worth it? HIGHLY DOUBTFUL. Brad, SHAME ON YOU. I pray everyday that a tool like you isn’t behind me on my bike.

  10. Accidents are just that. You put yourself in that situation. Just like skydiving and having a faulty shoot. Its terrible but if she drove up 5 miles to the Clinton county trail system than she would have been in a safe area. Not the middle of a country road..

  11. larryhogue says:

    Wow, way to blame the victim, Jon. You need to remember that texting while driving is illegal in Michigan. Why not focus on that, than on the person who is blameless in this situation?

  12. larryhogue says:

    Thanks for that update, Lorie.

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