On your next ride, don't assume the law is on your side
In Alabama, the law won't protect you. In many cases it doesn't even apply.
After a winter spent mostly inside on the trainer, it’s time for a reminder about the hard truth of riding a bike on Alabama’s roads: You are at every driver’s mercy. And what I’ve found over the past couple of weeks is that the law, if it even applies, won’t protect you if the driver is wrong.
I’ve already had two close calls, both documented on video. In the first, a Toyota 4Runner passes me on a residential street and the passenger throws a nearly full soft drink can at me. It bounces in front of me and doesn’t make the hollow ring that an empty can makes. All of this is clear on the video, including the tag number.
After determining that this stretch of road was in the City of Vestavia Hills, I filed a police report and a detective took the police report, including the video, to a city magistrate. The detective told me the magistrate reviewed the video and “declined a warrant for harassment,” saying that “she said from appearances it looked as if it was more of a tossing the can out the window as opposed to throwing it at you.” He suggested pursuing a littering charge if we could identify the passenger. It’s impressive that the magistrate can judge intent from a video. It seems unlikely to me, at least, that someone littering tosses a nearly full can. The detective told me he hasn’t “caught up to” the vehicle’s owner yet but “he’s being looked at for other issues.” That’s not exactly reassuring.
So here’s what I take from this experience: In Vestavia Hills you get a free shot at cyclists if you have a soft drink handy and are willing to risk a littering fine.
The second close call illustrates a gaping hole in the Alabama law that pretends to require that motorists give cyclists a three-foot buffer when passing. Under the law, motorists have to pass at a “safe distance,” and the law defines that as three feet if there is a bicycle lane or on other roads except in certain circumstances. Unfortunately, those exceptions are so broad they render the law useless on the roads where it is most needed.
Speed limit over 45 mph? The law doesn’t apply.
Does the road have a double yellow line? The law doesn’t apply.
The road I was on had a 35 mph speed limit but it also had a double yellow line. Under Alabama law a driver can’t cross into the other lane to pass a vehicle in a no-passing zone. But here’s the kicker: the driver passed me without crossing the double yellow line.
The law still requires that the overtaking vehicle pass at a “safe distance,” but who’s to say what that is? If three feet is the minimum where the law does apply, then maybe a safe distance where it doesn’t apply is less than three feet. And all of this assumes drivers are aware of the law, and its exceptions, in the first place.
Here’s an experiment: Next time you’re on a ride, note when the law would require 3 feet. You’ll either be in a bike lane or on a road with no double yellow line and where the speed limit is 45 mph or less. It’s really a pretty small universe of roads.
We tell each other to be careful when we go for rides, but the reality is that being careful isn’t nearly enough. We have to count on drivers also being careful, paying attention, and not looking at their phones. And if they aren’t careful — or even if they’re malicious — we can’t count on the law to protect us.