Last February, Ted Auch decided to take his bike for a spin. No matter that the weather was brutal and probably not the best for cycling; Auch wanted to go for a ride.

As he headed south on South Winooski Avenue in the right-hand lane, Auch was T-boned by a vehicle heading north that was trying to make a left turn onto Cherry Street. Auch ended up flying over the car's hood and came to rest on the ground next to his bicycle, which was rendered unrideable by the accident.

Auch was not seriously injured, but he got the driver's contact information and was later in touch about the damage to his bike and the cost of his emergency room visit. Auch, a 31-year-old doctoral student at the University of Vermont, had been obeying the rules of the road, he claimed, and he had the right of way. The driver, he contended, should have yielded to him.

The driver of the vehicle refused to pay the $1,100 in damages Auch was asking for. Auch took the driver to small claims court and won twice that amount. The judge in the case decided, despite the testimony of the driver and the witnesses she brought, that Auch was in the right.

The driver's reluctance to acknowledge fault was in part a result of a misunderstanding of the law governing bicycles and other non-motorized vehicles on the roads, Auch said.

"If I was in a car, she would be paying my insurance," Auch said.

The 3-foot law

Three bills recently introduced in the Legislature seek to address bicycle safety in Vermont and education for the driving public.

The 3-foot law, as written in H.578 and S.275, requires that the operator of a motor vehicle leave at least a 3-foot buffer when passing a cyclist. The House version of the bill also makes accommodations for cyclists who are overtaking and passing other bikes, making left turns or proceeding straight through an intersection.

Eight states have similar laws and eight more are working on bills to protect cyclists from cars and vice versa. Wisconsin has had a 3-foot law since 1973. Another piece of legislation, H.577, known as the "vulnerable users" bill, is a general pedestrian law aimed at expanding motor vehicle statutes to address negligent driving.

Advocates of the legislation say the laws are needed to make Vermont's roads safer for bicyclists, pedestrians and motorists alike. Many in the Legislature and law enforcement are skeptical of the bills' enforceability.

After a hearing before the Senate Transportation Committee, legislators recommended that advocates consult with the law enforcement community on language that would make the bills more practical and easily applied. Sen. Phil Scott, R-Washington, an avid cyclist, said he could not endorse such laws that were nearly impossible to enforce.
Clear rules needed

With more and more bikes on the road, advocates such as Nancy Schulz of the Vermont Bicycle and Pedestrian Coalition say legislation aimed at protecting cyclists and educating the public are essential.

Schulz says this legislation will provide "really firm ground to stand on" in the event that a cyclist is injured or killed in an accident with a motor vehicle.

"Now there's no black-and-white answer as to what the outcome will be if a motorist hits and kills a cyclist. There's no sense of quid pro quo," Schulz said. "We'd like a predictable outcome. That's the goal of the law."

No statistics are available on the number of cyclists who have been hit and injured by motor vehicles in Vermont because most go unreported. The bicycle-pedestrian advocacy group Local Motion reports that between 2001 and 2005 in Vermont, bicycle-pedestrian fatalities accounted for 4 to 11 percent of all traffic deaths.

Advocates insist that bicycles have the right to be on the road, but with that right comes the responsibility to uphold the law. Schulz acknowledges that some cyclists are not familiar with the rules of the road, or do not abide by them, and are occasionally responsible for accidents with motor vehicles.

Although members of the law enforcement community support the intentions of the bills, says Lt. John Flannigan of the Vermont State Police, they question whether the state needs another law that is difficult, if not impossible, to enforce. Short of having a police officer on every corner, it would be very difficult to gauge the distance a car is from a cyclist, Flannigan said.

"You don't want to pass anything that doesn't have any teeth," Flannigan said.

Local advocates would like to see the bills pass, but acknowledge that much of the legislation is aimed at reducing hostilities between drivers and cyclists and increasing education about proper road conduct, as well as providing a level of predictability for cyclists after an accident.

These bills are among the many strategies to make Vermont roads safer, but they're not the silver bullet, said Chapin Spencer, executive director of Local Motion.

"Once you have these laws in place, you can promote their existence," Spencer said. "We have to ask how we can do a better job educating people and enforcing the rules of the road."

For cyclist Auch, the legislation makes good sense. Had it been in place at the time of his accident, he would not have had to fight to exact compensation from the driver who hit him. Auch said he would like to see the laws regarding cyclists more aggressively taught when people are taking driving tests.

"When kids are taking their driving tests ask 'Do you know what rights cyclists have?' " Auch said. "That would be amazing."

Contact Lauren Ober at 660-1868 or lober@bfp.burlingtonfreepress .com