Cyclists Have Rights Too
As a bicycle commuter, club cyclist, and fan of lightweight electric vehicles, I'm very interested in maintaining the legal right of drivers of slow (or sometimes slow) vehicles to access every destination they choose.
Historically, drivers of slower vehicles including bicycles, tractors, construction equipment, and horse-drawn carriages have been allowed to use virtually every roadway not posted with a minimum speed limit beyond the vehicle's capabilities. With few exceptions, these minimum speed limits apply only to controlled-access freeways that do not provide exclusive access to destinations and are redundant to local roads accessible to slow vehicles. This status quo protects the travel rights of people who don't have the use of high-speed vehicles.
An increasing number of new suburban communities, especially in the sunbelt, feature high-speed (40-50 mph) arterial roads as the only useful through roads connecting increasingly segregated land uses such as residences, shopping, schools, and employment.
At first, many states and municipalities tried to ban bicyclists from these arterial roads, claiming them to be hazardous for bicyclists, but bicycling organizations successfully challenged these discriminatory laws by showing that (1) these roads are essential for cyclists to use for basic transportation to everyday destinations, and (2) that the accident data showed that the injury rate on arterials is not substantially higher than other roads, and certainly not great enough to outweigh the usefulness of the roadway to cyclists.
Bicycling organizations and supporters of the Amish, who travel by horse-drawn carriage, have waged a constant political battle in the courts and legislatures for most of a century to protect the right to travel on all streets to important destinations, regardless of the posted maximum speed limit.
Bicyclists also worked hard to preserve the legal right to operate according to the same rules as drivers, instead of by pedestrian rules, because the rules for drivers were shown to be much safer and much more convenient for cyclists. Instead of banning bicycles, states and municipalities instead turned their attention toward how to improve accommodation of bicycles and other slow vehicles on the arterials through the use of wide outside lanes, wide paved shoulders, driver education, and law enforcement. It looked like we were winning the war to protect our constitutional travel rights.
Recently, however, drivers of bicycles and other slow vehicles face an unexpected (and certainly unintentional) threat from the electric vehicle industry. Under encouragement from the USDOT, manufacturers of electric vehicles including neighborhood electric vehicles, golf carts, and Segways have been promoting legislation in states and municipalities that would prohibit various classes of "slow-moving vehicles" from roadways with maximum speed limits above 30 or 35 mph.
In other cases the special legislation has required operators of these vehicles to operate according to rules that conflict with the rules that apply to drivers of vehicles, for example staying to the extreme right edge of the roadway at all times and turning left from the curb after yielding to all traffic.
This legislation has been purported to legitimize the use of certain electric vehicles on public streets, but by limiting their access and in some cases requiring drivers to operate in a dangerous, non-vehicular manner that conflicts with existing traffic law, these laws unravel much of what the bicycling organizations have done to educate the public about the travel rights of slow drivers and the safest way to operate a slow vehicle on streets. It also creates a dangerous precedent and slippery slope that could lead to the prohibition of bicycles from important streets that the bicycling organizations have worked so hard to maintain the right to use.
Drivers of electric vehicles are not well served by traffic laws that limit their travel to roads posted 35 mph and under, because most of the useful roads that join dissimilar land uses in the suburbs (especially in the sunbelt) are posted over 35 mph. Drivers of vehicles must often use these arterials for a few hundred feet to a mile or so in order to leave a residential subdivision and enter a shopping center. Drivers of electric vehicles are also put in danger by traffic laws that conflict with the ordinary rules of the road.
Empirical evidence shows that destination positioning at intersections reduces collisions and injuries; laws that require slow-vehicle drivers to hug the right edge of the road without exception, yield to traffic coming from all directions, or use sidewalks have created increased collision rates for bicyclists and will do the same for electric vehicle users. It is impossible to increase the safety and usefulness of travel by giving a driver inferior rights to other drivers or responsibilities that exceed what can be reliably expected of human drivers of vehicles.
The electric vehicle industry would do well to learn from the experienced bicycling organizations on how to best protect the interests of the drivers of their products. Drivers of slow vehicles fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles with equal rights and responsibilities on all roadways except those controlled access freeways that (1) are posted with minimum speed limits above the vehicle capabilities, (2) do not provide essential access, and (3) are redundant to roads are legal for slow vehicles use.
Bicycling organizations would benefit by joining forces with the electric vehicle industry to promote tolerance and inclusion for drivers of all slow, compact, affordable, environmentally friendly vehicles on all streets with access to all destinations. Our united vision should be a transportation infrastructure and regulation system designed to protect the travel rights of these drivers to every destination, and not segregate or isolate them based on prejudicial "might makes right" arguments that do more long-term harm than good. If essential streets are not safe for drivers of these vehicles, the prudent response is to make the streets safer, not banish the drivers.
I invite the EV industry to join us in our mission to protect the right to travel and tread lightly upon the Earth.
"Freedom of movement is the very essence of our free society ... once the right to travel is curtailed, all other rights suffer." - Justice William Douglas, U.S. Supreme Court
Steve Goodridge has a Ph.D.in electrical engineering and is a founding member, North Carolina Coalition for Bicycle Driving
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