LANSING, Mich. – In the capital of the U.S. auto industry, drivers have been slow to accept that more Americans are choosing bicycles over cars for commuting or for fun and exercise.
While other states adopted bike-friendly safety laws to accommodate cycling's soaring popularity, Michigan steered clear of the trend and watched as more riders got killed by cars. Now lawmakers are trying to make up for lost time by seeking some of the nation's strictest bike-safety regulations and tough new penalties for distracted motorists who cause serious injury or death while using a mobile device.
It could be a culture shock for a state where Fords, Chevys and Chryslers have reigned supreme for generations.
“It's a really, really hot topic,” said Republican Rep. Triston Cole, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The bills have widespread support in the Senate and are awaiting further study in the House.
If the proposals become law, Michigan cyclists would gain additional legal protections and motorists would have to wait for 5 feet of clearance before passing a bike – a wider berth than all but one other state.
Cyclists say it is time for the state with the Motor City to change.
Thirty-eight cyclists were killed on Michigan roads last year, almost double the number two years earlier.
Nearly 2,000 were injured. Nationwide, 840 cyclists were killed in 2016, the most in 25 years.
Gobble, 48, was involved in one of the nation's deadliest vehicle-bike crashes when a pickup truck driver allegedly under the influence of drugs hit a group of nine cyclists in June 2016 near Kalamazoo, killing five. Gobble, who suffered a brain injury and broken bones in his back, neck, leg and ribs, said there is a “great deal of ignorance” about cyclists' rights to use the road.
The legislative debate is unfolding as bikes are booming all around the country.
Nearly 900,000 Americans commute to work by bicycle – a tiny portion of overall traffic but a 39 percent increase from a decade ago.
But except for roughly half a dozen Michigan communities that have enacted local 5-foot ordinances, the state has largely hewed to its car-centric traditions.
That may be changing. Among large U.S. cities, bike commuting grew the most on a percentage basis in Detroit from 2000 to 2016, according to the League of American Bicyclists. A bike-share program was launched in the city this year.
Twenty-four of the 38 bicyclists killed last year in Michigan were riding straight ahead just prior to the crash, police reported. Cyclists see that as evidence that motorists are passing too closely.
Thirty states have enacted distance-specific “safe passing” laws, most requiring 3 feet of clearance for passing bikes. Nine more tell drivers to pass at an unspecified safe distance, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In Michigan – where the law has been read to apply only to passing vehicles, not bikes – the proposal to allow a full 5 feet could force drivers to pull into the next lane rather than try to squeeze by. Cole suggested there are too many windy rural roads with miles of double yellow no-passing lines to require 5 feet. Citing concerns about commercial haulers, he said a universal distance requirement may not make sense for every situation.