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Promoting the rules of the road

City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler has proposed switching out those friendly and optimistic “Share the Road” signs – which feature silhouettes of a car and bicyclist side by side – with new, matter-of-fact signs that say “Bicycles May Use Full Lane.”

The new signs would make it clear that, legally, bicyclists have the right to use the full traffic lane, under both city ordinance and state law. Vigil Coppler said “Share the Road” sounds more like a suggestion and that such a message isn’t legally enforceable.

The proposal has predictably set off a vigorous debate even before it has reached any City Council committee. Online posters and writers of letters to the editor are going at it.

Motorists who resent bikers because they go too slow, or who say too many cyclists exhibit risky or aggressive behavior and fail to follow the same traffic rules that car drivers have to, see the proposal as caving in to a special interest lobby. The nightmare scenario from this side is leisurely cyclists cruising down the middle of traffic lanes on Cerrillos Road or some other busy, relatively high-speed-limit street as cars back up behind the riders because “Bicycles May Use Full Lane.”

Cyclists seem generally in favor of the proposal, as it makes it clear that on narrow streets, bicyclists do have to right to use the pavement without harassment or, worse, a dangerous effort by motorists to try to race or squeeze past. By law, motorists have to slow down in such a situation – those few seconds behind a bike most times aren’t really crucial. Yes, there are bike riders who take risks or who ironically don’t appear to want to “Share the Road,” but they’re not typically the existential danger that the much more numerous speeding, texting, reckless, drunk or aggressive motorists are.

Santa Fe has certainly become more bike-friendly as the city’s network of off-street trails expands. Segments like the Rail Trail along the Rail Runner route provide ways to commute into, or nearly into, downtown without having to cycle side by side with vehicles, although there’s usually no way to get around have to cross busy streets.

Santa Fe’s many old, narrow streets, particularly as traffic gets squeezed in downtown, are a major problem. Bikers also note that those sidewalk bump-outs at intersections, intended as traffic-calming measures or to make pedestrian crossings easier, are obstacles for cyclists, pretty much forcing them into the traffic lanes.

Stephen Newhall of Rob and Charlie’s bike shop makes this point in favor of changing the signs to “Bicycles May Use Full Lane:”

“When there isn’t enough room for cars to pass, it’s much safer to be in the middle of the road. If a cyclist is hugging the curb, drivers may think they can make it past. Maybe they will and maybe they won’t.”

“Share the Road” seems like the right message on busy thoroughfares. Advising that “Bicycles May Use Full Lane” is certainly appropriate in other circumstances. But mixing the two probably would just create more confusion.

Common sense, goodwill and mutual respect are the best solutions to the bike/car road sharing. But none of those things can be legislated. An argument could be made that signs that say “Bicycles May Use Full Lane” might make motorists already aggravated by cyclists on the road just more aggravated.

New signs, including some that remind drivers that bikers are supposed to be granted a five-foot clearance, would cost an estimated $17,000. That’s cheap and the money would come from a bicycle safety fund.

The new signs wouldn’t be a panacea, but in the end they would be an improvement, clarifying the rules of road. A couple of university studies support the idea that the proposed language is less confusing and ambiguous.

The City Council should OK the change, with the proviso that cycling groups be urged to do what they can to make sure the “Bicycles May Use Full Lane” proclamation on city signs is not abused just to make a point or hassle motorists.