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Bicycle Buffer Zone Laws

There is no question: the most dangerous vehicle to operate on U.S. roads is the bicycle.

In collisions, bikers always lose. They tend to be less visible and far less protected than even someone driving a scooter or a motorbike. What’s more, most people see biking as a casual experience. The most protection bikers usually wear is a small helmet that does not even extend down to their earlobes.

When the police bring in a motorist who has just collided with a bicycle, there tends to be a lot of headshaking. Those motorists can usually expect a speedy trial and participating with a bail bonds company.

In cities and towns across the U.S., bikers seem to operate in a bit of a gray zone. They are legally required almost everywhere to abide by the traffic laws that cars and other vehicles follow on the road, yet they seldom do. Everyone has seen a biker cruise through a red light or stop sign, maybe even in view of a police officer. And yet, bikers almost never receive tickets.

This is not a happy marriage. In 2015, the latest year for which statistics are available, 818 bikers were fatally injured in collisions. An estimated 45,000 were also injured to some degree in traffic accidents. That may not seem like much, but when one accounts for how many people regularly ride bikes instead of driving cars, that number looks a lot bigger. What’s more, the majority of bicycle deaths and injuries involve the bicyclist being struck by the front end of a motor vehicle.

This reality has caused many states to adopt bicycle buffer zones.

Bicycle buffer zones—what are they, and how do they work?

Researchers have found that, by increasing the distance between bicycles and cars on the street, fewer collisions occur. As such, many cities have not only created bike lanes along their roads, they have also denoted a space between the bike and car lanes, usually with diagonally painted white lines or signs. Sometimes, a physical median maintains this separation.

The theory behind bike buffer zones is that they make for a more stress-free ride. When bikers feel squeezed on the shoulder or even within the right-hand lane, they tend to panic more easily and may cause a collision or at least increase their likelihood.

Another huge danger for bicyclists is getting doored. For anyone who has ridden a bike regularly through cities, they have probably either narrowly escaped or crashed into an opening door on multiple occasions. Buffer zones significantly reduce the risk of getting doored on a bike.

Bicycle buffer zone law

The nitty-gritty of most state buffer zone law goes like this: if a motorist strikes a bicycle within the buffer zone, the responsibility falls on the motorist. Wisconsin was the first state to adopt such measures in 1973 and, since then, 33 states, along with the District of Columbia, have followed. Several other states expect to pass a version of buffer zone law soon, and hundreds of cities also have their own municipal statutes.

The most common details of these laws mandate a three-foot space between bike and car or truck. Violating this three-foot buffer zone when passing, even if it does not result in a collision, can incur a fine. U.S. roads are intended for everyone, but not everyone can rely on the same degree of safety, especially so while riding a bike. As a result, laws tend to be much more sympathetic towards bicyclists.

How to deal with a buffer zone violation

Many motorists feel completely hamstrung by these laws. Bikes can create dangerous situations, especially if they don’t follow traffic laws, but when accidents occur, the motorist must bear the brunt of the responsibility.

For any motorist dealing with the legal repercussions of a buffer zone violation, or worse, a collision involving serious injury, the U.S. legal system still strives to enact justice fairly. Countless legal services are available to motorists, such as sympathetic attorneys and bail bond agents that can get defendants back home even if they don’t have the cash on hand.

The best course of action is to drive safely and within the confines of the law, even if bikers don’t.

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