Dunwoody resident Jason Metzger was on his bicycle about a mile from his home three years ago when a near-calamity changed his attitude toward safety and his behavior on the roads.
A driver coming out of a subdivision “somehow didn’t see me,” he said, “and drove right into me and knocked me off my bike.” Luckily, Metzger said he only sustained some scrapes, but he was confronted with the ‘harrowing” nature of metro Atlanta’s car-dominated roads.
Stories like Metzger’s — as well as a crash in January where a jogger was struck while in a crosswalk — inspired the city of Dunwoody to propose a first-of-its-kind ordinance for Georgia. A “Vulnerable Road Users” law, which could be passed as early as next month, would give new protections to bicyclists, pedestrians and other people deemed “vulnerable” on the roads, like skateboarders, motorcyclists and scooter riders.
The ordinance, spearheaded by City Councilman Tom Lambert, goes further than the current state law, and would stiffen the penalties for drivers who strike or act aggressively toward bicyclists or pedestrians. Based on Lambert’s research, he said, Dunwoody would be the first city in Georgia — as well as in the surrounding states — to pass such a law.
Several other states and large cities around the country, including Connecticut, Utah, Washington and Houston, have their own vulnerable road users laws. Bike advocates around Georgia, meanwhile, have pushed for the state to pass a law that goes further than the current safeguards for cyclists.
“This is obviously an issue everywhere. It’s not unique to Dunwoody,” Lambert said in a recent interview. “I hope we can be an inspiration to neighboring municipalities, other cities throughout the state.”
State law says vehicles must be at least 3 feet away from a bicycle when passing one. Dunwoody’s ordinance, which Lambert expects will pass, adds trucks and commercial vehicles into the mix, making it illegal to for them to provide less than 6 feet while passing a bike.
It also bans drivers from throwing things at vulnerable road users, making an unsafe turn in front of them and maneuvering a car in a way that could cause “intimidation or harassment.” (The ordinance provides a defense for drivers if a bicyclist is not riding in a bike lane, or a pedestrian isn’t on the sidewalk or in a crosswalk.)
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Lambert said the ordinance would also increase penalties against drivers who threaten the safety of cyclists, but those specifics are still being worked out.
“We want it to be more than a traffic violation. We want there to be some serious consequences,” he said, adding that Dunwoody might lessen the penalty against drivers if they attend a driver safety course.
That driver education aspect is crucial for Elliott Caldwell, who leads the statewide advocacy organization Georgia Bikes.
“A lot of people in cars don’t believe you should be there. … It can be a very intimidating environment to get on a bike and ride to work,” he said, since many drivers “don’t understand that their car is a very dangerous weapon in a way.”
Georgia Bikes has pushed for the General Assembly to pass a statewide vulnerable road users law. Caldwell said more awareness is needed to inspire state action on the issue, but he hopes Dunwoody’s ordinance can help pave the way.
Metzger, who mostly takes his bike to run errands or to the Dunwoody MARTA station, said he often tries to convince friends or family members to take bicycles for 1- or 2-mile trips. But the overwhelming response, he said, is that “they just don’t feel safe.” He hopes the new ordinance can help fix that.
“It’s a good way to remind drivers that there are other users of the road, and they do need to pay more attention and watch out for them,” Metzger said, “and not be texting their friends.”
More than 130 pedestrians in Georgia died in the first six months of 2018, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, a national group that studies traffic safety issues. That’s nearly a third higher than the number of deaths in first half of 2017.
Some feel bicyclists and pedestrians already have enough legal safeguards. Dunwoody resident Cheryl Summers told the City Council on Monday that the proposal seemed a little “ridiculous” and redundant to the laws already in place.
“I don’t see the need for this. I don’t know of any driver or operator of a vehicle who would deliberately try to run down a pedestrian or one of these others vulnerable road users,” Summers said.
Dunwoody, meanwhile, is in the midst of a public awareness campaign aimed at pedestrian safety and improving drivers’ behavior. Lambert said the education components — as well as improved infrastructure for walkers and bikers — are key to making the streets safer.
“I’m not naive, and know (the ordinance) is not a magic elixir that is going to solve all of the issues,” Lambert said.
The proposal went before the City Council on Monday but was deferred because Lambert and the City Council are still fine-tuning some of the language. It could return before the body later this month for a first read.
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