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Bike advocates push road rules for motorists

A jersey from the

A jersey from the "3 Feet Please" worldwide campaign. Cyclist Joe Mizereck, (not pictured here) an advocate for safe distance laws across the country, believes in keeping vehicles and bikes a specific distance apart on the road. (July 14, 2011) Credit: Handout

New York, like all but one other state in the nation, has a law requiring motorists to keep a "safe distance" when passing bicyclists.

But what is a "safe distance?"

Among bicyclists, relatives of cyclists killed on the roads, and elected officials who have pushed for such laws, that is a point of contention.

In 19 states, 3 feet is the berth that motorists are required by law to give cyclists. And it is the rallying cry behind a "3 Feet Please" campaign begun by a Florida man who sells bright yellow biking jerseys on the Internet to promote the cause as a safety measure.

New York's new law, which took effect Nov. 1, requires drivers to pass bicyclists at a "safe distance until safely clear thereof." The law does not mandate an actual distance. Offenders could face a traffic infraction.

The widow of Merrill Cassell, an avid cyclist from Westchester County whose November 2009 death spurred introduction of New York's legislation, said Thursday she wants the new law amended to include the specific 3-foot distance.

"My husband was a very careful rider," said Maximilla Cassell, of Greenburgh. "I am 100 percent for doing whatever I can to have the law changed."

If New York had enacted such a law earlier, she said, perhaps her husband would still be alive.

Merrill Cassell, 66, a retired budget director for UNICEF who was an advocate for bicyclists' safety and rights, was struck and killed by a Bee-Line bus on Nov. 6, 2009, in Greenburgh.

He was riding with traffic, as required by law. The bus began to overtake his bicycle and passed very close; the two collided, and Cassell fell and was run over, police said at the time. The bus driver was not charged.

Two legislators -- Assemb. Amy Paulin (D-Scarsdale) and state Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Greenburgh) -- introduced the bill that came to be called "Merrill's Law" in the early months of 2010.

"They said it was an accident, but with a law in place like this, no matter whether it was or not, at least he would have gotten a ticket," Paulin said of the bus driver.

The measure originally called for offenders to be charged with a misdemeanor, but that was removed before the bill's passage.

In addition, the legislation originally stipulated that drivers must allow at least 3 feet between their vehicle and a bicyclist, Paulin said. But she said she believes the term "safe distance" is relative, dependent upon circumstance and road conditions.

"Sometimes three feet isn't enough, sometimes two is okay . . . sometimes you need three, four or five feet," she said. "The term 'safe distance' became a better concept instead of arbitrarily naming a distance."

Cyclist Joe Mizereck, however, an advocate for safe distance laws across the country, believes in keeping vehicles and bikes a specific distance apart on the road.

Mizereck, of Tallahassee, Fla., began his "3 Feet Please" worldwide campaign about three years ago. Florida law specifies that motorists must give cyclists at least 3 feet of space when passing, and so Mizereck began producing and selling jerseys with the message imprinted on them. He also has sold jerseys with the message "1 Metre Please" to people in other countries, he said.

On his website, he posts links to the safe-distance laws of each state. All except Alaska have some kind of law, with 19 states currently specifying 3 feet as a safe distance and 10 more with legislation pending to amend their laws to specify 3 feet, according to documents from each state posted on his site.

Mizereck said he has sold 200 to 300 jerseys to New Yorkers.

"I think if you look at the areas with highest fatalities, anywhere you go, it's predominantly in urban areas," Mizereck said. "It's not just an issue for cyclists. Everybody needs to take a second and think about how to drive more safely."

Mizereck said the general response from people who buy his jerseys is that motorists give them more space more often.

Local cyclists don't necessarily believe a specific safe distance law is realistic.

Bill Selsky, of East Meadow, president of the Long Island Bicycle Club, said while he thinks a 3-foot law is a good idea, he doesn't think Long Island drivers are aware of the state's current safe-distance law.

"I think it's a difficult law to enforce," he said. "I don't think police would ride along stopping people for not giving bikes three feet."

Tracy Riedinger of Huntington, president of the Huntington Bike Club, agreed. Unless a law enforcement official directly observes a motorist breaking the law, she said, a driver could say one thing while a bicyclist could say another.

"I'm going to assume that they [vehicles] are not aware that there is a law," Riedinger said. "Some people will give us a wide berth and be very courteous, and some people are exceptionally aggressive."

The cyclists agreed on a crucial point -- both they and motorists need to do more to be safe while sharing the road.

"The ideal setting for cyclists is limited-or-no traffic, but that's not going to happen," Selsky said. "We share the road. We need to take care of each other."

"The fault is usually half-and-half," Mizereck said of cyclists and motorists. "The key thing to remember is this: It really doesn't matter who's at fault, the bicyclist is going to lose either way."

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