The Environmental Matters Committee gave an unfavorable report yesterday to House Bill 445, which would have removed the "narrow highway" exception to Maryland's three-foot safe passing statute. The Committee also rejected HB 160, which would have legalized riding bikes on sidewalks in localities with no local laws on the subject (Baltimore, Montgomery, Prince Georges, and Howard have local laws.)
As we've discussed before on the Washcycle, Maryland's three-foot law has four confusing exceptions. One of those exceptions allows drivers to pass with less than three feet of clearance if the highway is too narrow for a driver to pass with three feet of clearance. No one knows precisely what that exception means: Bike Maryland thinks that this exception refers to virtually every two-lane road with a double yellow line, while I think that, regardless of what was in the mind of Delegate Malone when he inserted the provision, the rules of statutory construction mean that the exception only applies to narrow highways (e.g. country roads or one-lane bridges). But if the cycling advocates can't agree on what it means, clearly the statute needs clarification. The best way to clarify the statute would have been to eliminate this exception, which this bill would have done.
Why did the bill fail? We don't know yet, though some of the contributing factors are obvious. Cycling advocates have focused more on HB 339, the mandatory helmet bill. Two weeks ago, ten advocates showed up to a hearing at the Environmental Matters Committee, and passionately offered a wide array of arguments against the helmet bill. About 20 minutes later, Delegate Cardin presented the safe-passing bill to the same commitee, and only three of those advocates testified, along with Bike Maryland (which has taken no position on the helmet bill). None of the advocates were as passionate about the three-foot bill as they were in opposing the helmet bill.
The truck drivers opposed the safe-passing bill, and interpret the existing law the same way Bike Maryland construes it. They want to be able to pass cyclists more closely than three feet if the alternatives are to cross the double yellow line or wait. Trucks are wider than cars: It will often be possible for a car and a bike to share a lane with a three-foot clearance (if the cyclist hugs the edge). But a 9-foot truck can only pass with 1-foot of clearance, and the truckers want to be able to continue doing so. One representative added that they can't really tell whether they are passing with 3' feet or 2'6" anyway. None of the cycling advocates made a strong case for why a safety buffer is more important than giving truckers what they want.
Another contributing factor was that Delegate Cardin also seemed to be preoccupied with other matters. His presentation starts at 1:25:00 in the video of the hearing. There was a subsequent colloquy with Delegate Vitale in which it became clear that the committee and Delegate Cardin had different versions of the bill (1:35:00). A few minutes later, (1:38:00) Delegate Cardin closed that colloquy by providing an explanation that seemed to more closely resemble last year's bill than this year's bill.
If these are the reasons the bill failed this year, I hope that Delegate Cardin and Bike Maryland will stick with this version of the bill and try again next year. It was a step in the right direction, and the fact that we did not convince the Committee this year had more to do with the fact that our minds were elsewhere than the merits of the bill.
With a little more preparation, we can make the case for removing the narrow-highway exception. The idea that trucks should be able to pass bikes with less clearance than cars, simply because trucks are wider, is absurd.
(Jim Titus is a cycling advocate from Prince George's County. The opinions expressed here do not represent the views of any organization with which he is affiliated.)