Georgia law clarifies sidewalk biking and increases fines for motorists causing serious injuries

It's counterintuitive: for adults, bicycling on the sidewalk increases your likelihood of being hit by a car. During the 2009 session, Georgia legislators passed Senate Bill 196 to amend Title 40 (motor vehicles and traffic). The amendment allows local governments to let kids 12 and under bike on sidewalks, and states that no others can operate vehicles on sidewalks. Other aspects of the bill increase the fines and jail time for motorists who seriously injure cyclists or pedestrians. ABC's role in this legislation was limited to asking the bill's sponsors to add an exception for children. While many streets in Georgia are less than ideal for cycling, we believe that by combining cyclist/motorist education and public advocacy, we can make improvements in conditions for cycling.

No bill is perfect, but this one begins to address confusing aspects of Georgia code relating to bicycles, and takes a step in the right direction by increasing the fines for motorists who seriously injure cyclists and other vulnerable travelers.

During the coming legislative session, we will be working on a Better Bicycling Bill that will include provisions to better protect cyclists in this state. We are also working on a public education campaign to encourage drivers to give at least three feet when passing.

Here's what the new code states:

(40-6-144) "Except as provided by resolution or ordinance of a local government for sidewalks within the jurisdiction of such local government authorizing the operation of bicycles on sidewalks by persons 12 years of age or younger, no person shall drive any vehicle upon a sidewalk or sidewalk area except upon a permanent or duly authorized driveway."

ABC heard out about the original provision in another bill that did not pass late in the session. Once we found out about it, we worked with the bill's sponsors to add the language allowing exceptions for children biking on sidewalks. Without our knowledge, that bill died but the sidewalk section was inserted into another piece of legislation.

Among other things, the legislation increased penalties for causing serious injury due to a right of way violation resulting in a collision with a motorcyclist, pedestrian, bicyclist, (or farmer hauling agricultural products). Fines were raised to $250 for a first time violation, and a second violation gets a $500-$1,000 fine and 10 days to a year in jail. Notice there is no mention of "intentional" violations - if a driver is found to have violated the right of way and hurts a more vulnerable person in the process, this act applies.

Most studies indicate that riding your bike on the sidewalk is riskier than integrating with on-street traffic. At the same time, it's human nature to worry about something coming up behind you, out of your range of vision.

But don't take my word for it! Read "How to Not Get Hit by Cars: important lessons in bicycle safety."

Keep in mind that most car/bike crashes occur at intersections, where turning cars or vehicles that fail to follow traffic signals (cars AND bikes) up the crash risk. Cyclists in city and suburban environments are very rarely hit from behind. So people spend a lot of time worrying about the bogeyman we imagine, and less time focusing on the practical things they can do to avoid the real hazards.

Here are a few of the factors involved in car crashes with bicycles on sidewalks:

- Drivers of cars are not expecting vehicles on the sidewalk at bike speed (generally 7-15 mph). They are looking out for people walking at much slower speeds.

- At intersections and driveways, in the time it takes to look right and left, a turning car can easily be overtaken by a bicyclist merrily rolling along into the turning pattern, who gets hit "out of nowhere" because the driver didn't see him or her.

- Trees, shrubs, mailboxes, signs, and parked cars between the sidewalk and the street block the cyclist on the sidewalk from the view of drivers on the street.

- Sidewalks are made for people walking - bicyclists can endanger pedestrians, especially in busy areas.

Read an article about sidewalks and bike safety here: http://tinyurl.com/psvoo8

Children, however, ride on the sidewalk

First and foremost, kids don't have the traffic sense of adults. They have not yet been trained to drive any vehicle, car or bike, so they don't understand how traffic works.

What's more, they do not have a clear grasp of consequences and might try things that are unnecessarily risky.

Kids also tend to be moving at slower speeds, more akin to pedestrian speeds.

Kids do need to be trained to get off their bikes and walk across busy driveways and all intersections. Kids have much higher chances of being hit by cars than adults as they ride lower to the ground, move more slowly, and are less aware of traffic.