In the Maryland General Assembly, our efforts to promote and defend the interests of bicyclists were reasonably successful this year—especially compared to how things might have turned out. There were no major advances specifically for cycling this year. But WABA and its members and supporters helped stop a bill that would have been very harmful to bicycling. We also helped a coalition of transportation groups to persuade the legislature to increase funding for transportation for the first time in 21 years.
Here is a rundown of the legislation that we followed this year in Maryland.
Bikes on sidewalks
The Maryland code prohibits bicycling on sidewalks, unless the locality enacts a law to legalize it. Delegate Aruna Miller (D-Montgomery) has introduced a bill the last two years to reverse the presumption, so that bicycling on sidewalks would be legal unless the locality prohibits it. Before the legislative session started, we notified Delegate Miller that WABA would not take a position on such a bill this year. Local legislation legalizing sidewalk riding has already been enacted by Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, so it was unclear whether this bill would have much of an impact in the Washington area other than in a few municipalities. We doubted that we would be able to devote time and energy to this bill. HB 160 attracted little attention, and received an unfavorable report from the House Environmental Matters Committee.
Mandatory helmet law
Delegate Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore), who chairs the Environmental Matters Committee, introduced HB 339, which would have required adults to wear helmets when bicycling on any highway, including trails. As soon as the bill was introduced, WABA immediately went into high-gear to do all we could to stop it. Hundreds of our members and supporters sent emails to delegates on the committee asking them to oppose the bill. But it appeared to be an uphill battle because about half the committee had sponsored it.
As Shane Farthing and Greg Billing explained, mandatory helmet laws could undermine the success of a bikesharing system in the Maryland suburbs. It would also force people to choose between breaking the law and not bicycling on occasion, when wearing a helmet is not feasible. Some advocates are also concerned that the effectiveness of helmets has often been overstated on government web sites.
WABA has long been one of the strongest advocates of helmet use in the mid-Atlantic region. We require helmets on all rides. We have long facilitated the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute (although it raises its own finds). During the 1990s, we strongly advocated a mandatory helmet law for children under the age of 16, which was eventually enacted. But it is not always a good idea to pass a law that requires adults to do things for their own good. We did not support a law requiring all adults to ride a bike either.
We were fortunate that Delegate McIntosh is an avid cyclist and genuinely supports cycling, while disagreeing with us on the question of a mandatory helmet law. She heard the passion with which bicycle advocates from both Baltimore and the Washington area opposed her legislation (Bike Maryland took no position). Although our logic did not persuade her on the helmet issue, as a good politician she concluded that she would rather work with us on matters where we agree than against us on the helmet bill. In late February, McIntosh decided not to push the helmet bill further this year so that we could work to increase funding for the state’s cycling infrastructure.
Because Maryland has not raised the gas tax since 1992, the funds available for new transportation infrastructure have been dwindling. Last year, Governor Martin O’Malley proposed to extend the state’s 6 percent sales tax to gasoline, but neither chamber passed the bill.
It was important to increase the funds for transportation this year, because otherwise, federal funding for the Purple Line would be unlikely. Yet prospects did not look good during the first two months of the legislative session. Then, Virginia increased its sales tax to fund transportation near the end of its 60-day session. Shortly thereafter, Maryland’s governor, speaker, and senate preesident announced a plan to increase the gas tax by an amount equal to roughly 1 percent of the retail price of gasoline for each of the next three years.
With the helmet bill behind us, we strongly supported House Bill 1515. Hundreds of our members and supporters wrote their legislators to indicate their willingness to pay higher taxes to increase funding for transportation. The bill passed. As a result, the state will be able to proceed with its Capital Transportation Plan, which allocates about 7 percent of the funding to bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.
Like the District of Columbia and many other states, Maryland generally requires drivers to leave at least three feet of clearance when overtaking a bicyclist. But the Maryland law has several confusing exceptions, including one for narrow highways. No one knows whether that exception includes standard highway lanes in no-passing zones, or only genuinely narrow highways such as one-lane bridges. Bike Maryland championed House Bill 445, which would have removed that exception. Although we endorsed the bill, our focus on the helmet bill made it impractical for us to do anything more than lend out name to their efforts, and the bill received an unfavorable report from the Environmental Matters Subcommittee.
The Maryland Court of Appeals is considering a case that could, if successful, repeal the doctrine of contributory negligence. Maryland is one of only five states that retains this legal doctrine, under which a plaintiff who is even minimally at fault cannot successfully sue to recover damages caused by someone else’s negligence. This doctrine is very unfair to cyclists, who may lose the ability to pay for significant medical bills or the loss of earnings after a severe accident.
Last fall, the Maryland Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on whether to replace the doctrine of contributory negligence with comparative fault in the case of Coleman v. Soccer Association of Columbia. The case involves a volunteer soccer coach who smoked pot before practice, tried to swing on a portable goal, and fell on his face. He sued for damages from the soccer league for failing to warn him about this hazard, but the jury found that he was contributorily negligent, so he could not recover damages.
If any such bill has a significant chance of passing, we will work to include an exception for bicyclists who collide with motor-vehicle drivers.
Jim Titus is a member of WABA’s Board of Directors from Prince George’s County.