Confusion rampant over bike laws
By Chris Rourke
Recent conflicts in the City of Gunnison between bicyclists and motorists have highlighted confusion over traffic laws. However, a move appears to be afoot to alleviate misunderstanding through the proposal of a local ordinance.
Gunnison resident Janet Lucas contacted police recently after her husband narrowly avoided a collision with a bicyclist who was riding in a crosswalk at the intersection of West Tomichi Avenue and Wisconsin Street.
Lucas erroneously was told by an officer that cyclists may not ride in crosswalks anywhere in the city, but that he would follow up with her on the matter in subsequent days. The officer later contacted Lucas to say he had been incorrect in that city rules only bar cyclists from riding in crosswalks in the downtown area, she said.
A recent accident at the same intersection further highlights the confusion. The accident occurred July 31, when a 27-year old woman was reportedly riding her bicycle northbound in the crosswalk when she was struck by a vehicle traveling westbound in the north lane.
Gunnison Police said that some of the traffic had stopped for the cyclist before she was struck by the vehicle. The unnamed victim was treated and released from Gunnison Valley Hospital.
The incident prompted discussion among officers during the investigation about the laws that applied in the accident, said Captain Chris Wilson.
No citations were issued in the incident based on witness statements verifying that congested traffic prevented the motorist from seeing a bicycle traveling in the crosswalk. Still, the motorist involved in the accident was determined to be "at fault" for the purpose of the state accident report.
Cities, towns can implement own rules
According to state statute, bicyclists may ride within a crosswalk and have the same protections given to pedestrians. However, statute also allows municipalities to prohibit such action either through a traffic control device — such as a sign — or through a local ordinance. The same is affirmed in the Municipal Model Traffic Code which city leaders adopted through an ordinance in 2010.
The City of Gunnison has no specific ordinance regulating bicycle use in crosswalks. However, signs are posted throughout the Central Business District prohibiting them on sidewalks.
Police Chief Keith Robinson opined this week that crosswalks are an extension of the sidewalk — and, as a result, riding in a crosswalk is prohibited in the Central Business District.
"Wherever the city chooses to put a sign where it says no bikes on sidewalk, then you can't have bikes on the sidewalk," Robinson said. "(Crosswalks) are an extension of the sidewalk, so by default it would apply."
Yet, over the years, some of the signs — which specifically prohibit bicycle use on sidewalks, but do not specify crosswalks — have disappeared. Where there is no sign, state statute takes precedence in the absence of a specific city ordinance.
In the case of the accident at West Tomichi and Wisconsin, no sign was posted. In effect, the cyclist was permitted to ride in the crosswalk.
‘I don't think there is any legal basis for that’
Since the state permits local towns and cities to regulate bicycle operation, the laws can vary across Colorado. What might be legal in Boulder may not be in Denver or in Gunnison, contributing to the confusion.
Attorney Brian Weiss has represented injured bicyclists across Colorado, and is part of a network of legal professionals called Bike Law Colorado. While he agreed with Robinson's assessment that bicycles can be treated as both pedestrians in some cases and vehicles in others, he believes the law is quite clear.
Bicyclists riding in crosswalks are afforded the same protections as pedestrians unless another law — such as an ordinance passed by city leaders — states otherwise, he said. He also argued that crosswalks are not an extension of a sidewalk.
"I don't think there is any legal basis for that," Weiss said. "You can say no bikes on the sidewalk but you can't say that the crosswalk is part of the sidewalk because they're considered separate … both in the law and in Model Traffic Code."
Weiss said that although signs can be posted prohibiting certain bicycle use, there should be an ordinance "on the books" that supports such restrictions. He pointed to cities such as Boulder which have clarified bike laws by local ordinance. For example, bicyclists may ride in a crosswalk as long as they do not exceed eight miles per hour in speed.
Robinson agreed that the best method to clear up the confusion is through a local ordinance. He said he is looking to draft such rules — which would specify how bicyclists should treat crosswalks — for consideration by City Council. Such an ordinance may apply citywide and not just in the Central Business District.
"It would be trying to clarify the whole issue … making it clear that if you want to exercise your right as a pedestrian, get off your bike," Robinson explained. "If you don't want to get off your bike you're a vehicle and you have to yield to cross traffic."
Should council decide to pass an ordinance prohibiting bikes from riding in crosswalks, an education campaign would follow, Robinson said.
(Chris Rourke can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)