Barry Usher and the disingenuity of bike 'safety' 

Late last week, the status of a bill to prohibit bicycling on most of Montana's country roads went from "draft ready for delivery" to "draft back for redo." It seems the proposal from Rep. Barry Usher (R–Billings) has faced some unexpected blowback. "I don't want to ban bicycles," Usher told Ed Kemmick of Last Best News last weekend. "I don't want to kill tourism. I want bike safety."

Bike safety, at least in the bill's early drafts, looks more like driver convenience. Usher's bill would make it illegal to ride a bicycle on any highway without a paved shoulder. The prohibition would also apply to pedestrians and people in wheelchairs, who "may not walk or use the wheelchair along a two-lane highway outside the boundaries of a municipality when there is no paved shoulder on which to walk or use the wheelchair."

It's going to be exciting when the Highway Patrol arrests the first person in a wheelchair for refusing to make way. But that scenario seems unlikely. Usher says he didn't realize, when he wrote the bill, that it would prohibit bicycles from almost every highway in the state. In rural areas outside incorporated towns, his proposal would make it operatively illegal for people to leave their property unless they were in cars. As written, it prohibits the act of walking along the road.

These flaws, and the outcry they have provoked from various cycling organizations, make it unlikely that Usher's bill will emerge from committee intact. It's just too poorly thought out. It also reflects a broader hostility toward cyclists—one that cynically dresses itself up as concern for safety. To a number of Montana drivers and, apparently, legislators, the only safe place for a bicycle is in the garage.

Usher's bill specifically applies to two-lane highways without paved shoulders—in other words, to places where a driver faced with oncoming traffic might not be able to pass a bicycle. Rather than risk making cars slow down for a few hundred yards at a time, Usher's bill would ban bikes entirely. It is a motorist supremacy law, insisting that drivers' freedom from inconvenience is more important than everyone else's right to use the road.

This attitude is misguided. Far more people drive cars than ride bicycles, so it's understandable that some see cyclists purely as an opportunity to kill someone by accident. But in fact bicycles are doing drivers a favor.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • photo by Chad Harder

Bicycles present very little threat to drivers in collisions. Concerns for safety should always favor cyclists, because they bear most of the risk of injury in a traffic accident. They also inflict much less wear and tear on roads than cars do, while continuing to support those roads by paying the same taxes as drivers. The exception is the gas tax. Bicycles don't burn gas, and so they do not pollute the fresh air or spill transmission fluid in the pristine streams of the rural areas where drivers view cyclists as a nuisance. And according to the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana, bicycle tourism generated $377 million worth of economic activity in 2014 alone.

But the benefits of bicycles for drivers are not just economic and environmental. When you're driving, every person you see riding a bicycle is someone who isn't in a car or on a bus. Every bicycle on the road is an alternative to auto traffic. But we don't see them that way when we're driving. The driver sees each bicycle as a danger, like a patch of ice or a ball bouncing across the road. We experience the bike in front of us not as a reduction in gridlock, but as an inconvenience that forces us to drive slowly, excruciatingly, for 15 or even 30 seconds until we can blow past, angry and encased in two tons of hurtling steel.

In these moments, we are our worst selves. Bicycles represent everything we claim to want—cleaner air, less traffic, a healthier populace—but resent out of habit and petty irritability. We should not condemn drivers for their irrational anger at cyclists, because people aren't rational, especially behind the wheel. We should, however, blame Rep. Usher for his bad bill. As a state representative, it's his job to translate our irrational impulses into something productive and good.

His "bicycle safety" bill is not that. It's a plan to abridge some people's rights for the convenience of others. I am glad that it has provoked such outcry and hope that it will die a quiet death. Our laws should reflect our ambition to live more equitably and become better versions of ourselves. This bill is everyday complaining raised to the level of legislation. Our elected representatives can do better than that.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and getting yelled at from giant trucks at combatblog.net.

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