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Cyclists call for veto of bike safety bill over ‘sidepath’ mandate

SANTA FE – A an eleventh-hour amendment to legislation requiring New Mexico drivers to stay at least 5 feet away as they pass bicyclists on the road has spurred calls for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to veto the measure.

And it’s cyclists who want House Bill 192 killed off, even though the 5-foot safety buffer remains in the bill.

HB 192, sponsored by Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, passed on March 15, the second to last day of the recent legislative session.

The proposal directs motorists to use caution as they approach a person on a bicycle and says they must maintain a safe distance of at least 5 feet. Drivers would be allowed to cross the center line of the road if it’s necessary and there’s no oncoming traffic. A driver violating the law could face a $25 fine plus court costs if spotted by a police officer.

The Senate amendment, offered by Sen. James P. White, R-Albuquerque, says that a cyclist, when practical, must stay out of a traffic lane “if a separate posted or painted bicycle lane or pathway is provided within or adjacent to the roadway.” The House concurred with the change before the bill went to the governor.

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Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces

The additional language “has appalled all the bike advocates,” said Stephen Newhall, manager at Rob and Charlie’s bike shop in Santa Fe. He said many are calling or writing the governor’s office asking for a veto.

The problem cited by cycling advocates is not about bike lanes painted on roads or streets themselves but with paths designated for bikers or pedestrians that run alongside roadways. An old “mandatory sidepath law” was taken off the books in New Mexico the 1990s, advocates say.

Tim Rogers, a longtime biking advocate and planner who created the Santa Fe Metropolitan Bicycle Master Plan, said side paths create conflicts between cyclists and motorists as drivers turn on or off a road and must cross a path.

“It’s actually very dangerous,” Rogers said. He also said it’s difficult for motorists to “anticipate” a cyclist on a side path.

“In the extensive professional and academic literature on the design of bicycle facilities, the single most firmly established conclusion is that such a separated path alongside a road is the most dangerous possible design,” Jim Harrington, a former member of the Santa Fe Bicycle and Trails Advisory Committee, wrote in a letter to the editor sent to the Journal.

His letter says cyclists rarely use side paths and would rather share roads with vehicles. “Compare, for example, the steady bicycle traffic on the north-south stretch of Tramway (in Albuquerque) with the very rare appearance of a bicyclist on the adjacent multi-use path,” Harrington wrote.

Rubio said that as the legislative session wound down, her bill would have failed without the amendment. “We felt it was the best thing we could do at that point,” she said.

Rubio said she still feels the bill as passed is “a step forward” and helps promote debate on bike safety. White, who proposed the amendment, couldn’t be reached for comment.

The amended bill passed the Senate in a 29-12 vote. It first had passed the House 48-18. Republican opponents in the House said the 5-foot safety space mandate would be difficult to enforce and would shift liability for collisions to motorists.

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