The House Transportation Committee held a hearing Monday on a bill that would change several laws governing how cyclists and motorists are expected to share the road in Montana.
If House Bill 184 passes in its current form, cyclists in Montana would be required to wear high-visibility clothing on highways and use front and rear lights 24 hours a day. The bill would also instruct cyclists to ride on the shoulder or the far right side of the right-hand lane under most circumstances and require motorists to give cyclists a minimum of three feet of distance when passing.
Bill sponsor Denley Loge, R-St. Regis, says the measure is intended to make cyclists more visible to motorists and to create “a little more precise rules of the road.” He said he developed the proposal to address the concerns of drivers hauling heavy loads who have a hard time slowing or stopping when approaching cyclists on narrow, winding roads.
Introducing the bill, Loge said it’s “not necessarily very popular with the bicycling community, but it is popular with the traveling public in cars and trucks.”
Current law requires cyclists to use a front-facing light and a red rear reflector or light during dawn, dusk and nighttime hours. Loge’s proposal would require front and rear lights — not just reflectors — during daytime hours as well. That piece of the bill drew significant opposition, and Loge said he would likely introduce an amendment to change the daytime light requirement.
The bill would also require cyclists to wear at least 200 square inches of high-visibility material on highways where the speed limit is 35 mph or greater.
Motor Carriers of Montana CEO Duane Williams said he appreciates the bill’s intent.
“Anything that can help reduce conflicts and make the bikers more visible, we’re supportive of,” he said.
Several cycling advocates took issue with the bill’s high-visibility provision, saying that the choice to wear such gear should be based on a personal risk assessment, and that carrying a hunter-orange or reflective vest in urban areas on the off-chance they’ll bike on a roadway with a speed limit over 35 mph is onerous.
Missoula resident Eugene Schmitz said it would “increase a segment of illegal bicyclists” and compared it to other decisions that individuals are allowed to make for themselves, like wearing a helmet while riding a motorcycle.
HB 184 would also require drivers to give cyclists at least three feet of distance when passing, and allow drivers to cross a double yellow line to pass a cyclist if there is no oncoming traffic. That piece of the bill drew broad support. Ben Weiss, senior transportation planner for the city of Missoula, told Montana Free Press that is a national best practice-type provision for safe passing.
During the hearing, Bike Walk Montana Executive Director Doug Habermann said his organization stands in “strong support” of the passing-distance section of the bill, but opposes a provision requiring cyclists to ride on the shoulder or the right-hand half of the right lane. (A handful of exceptions, such as when a cyclist is passing a slower vehicle or preparing to turn left, would remain in place. Current law allowing a cyclist to take the center of the lane if they deem it unsafe to ride on the shoulder would also remain in place if HB 184 passes.)
Scot Kerns, a Republican representative from Great Falls who’s also a member of the Air Force Cycling Team, also took issue with the bill’s language about riding on the shoulder.
“The shoulders oftentimes in Montana are full of rocks and terribleness, and I don’t want to pop a tire when I’m 100 miles away from home,” he said. He added that he often doesn’t feel safe riding on the shoulder with cars parked on either side of the road, and that he wished to impress upon legislators the vulnerability of cyclists sharing the road with motorists.
Williams, with Motor Carriers of Montana, said he’d like stronger language encouraging cyclists to ride on the shoulder when one is available.
HB 184 would also strike down a current statute that allows two cyclists to ride side-by-side on roads with two lanes going in each direction. That change to existing law drew limited comment.
The House Transportation Committee did not take executive action on the measure Monday.
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