Beginning on November 1, bicyclists throughout New York can breathe a little easier when cycling down the state's roadways. This past August, Gov. David Paterson signed into law a bill requiring motorists to maintain a "safe distance" when passing bike riders. The law is meant to reduce the number of bicycling accidents that occur throughout New York.

The bill added section 1122-A to New York's Traffic Law, which reads:

The operator of a vehicle overtaking from behind a bicycle proceeding on the same side of a roadway shall pass to the left of such bicycle at a safe distance until safely clear thereof.

Drivers who violate the law will be cited at minimum with a traffic offense. More serious charges could follow if the driver seriously injures or kills a bicyclist while passing at less than a reasonably safe distance.

Law Passed in Honor of Bicyclist

Dubbed "Merrill's Law," the new safety measure for bicycle riders was passed in part due to an accident last November that took the life of 66-year-old bicyclist Merrill Cassel of Greenburg, New York. Cassel was riding his bike on Route 119 near White Plains when a public bus sideswiped him. Cassel died of his injuries.

Following Cassel's death, three bicycling organizations, including the Westchester Putnam Bike Walk Alliance and the New York Bicycle Coalition, began lobbying State Assembly members to take action to protect bicyclists.

Originally, the proposed legislation included a requirement that drivers maintain a minimum of three feet when passing bicyclists. However, the three-foot requirement eventually was dropped in favor of the "safe distance" language. State legislators believed that situations could arise that required drivers to maintain more than three feet from riders in order to ensure their safety. Of course, the "safe distance" language leaves plenty of ambiguity from case to case.

In states with bike passing laws, 16 of them require drivers to maintain a three-foot buffer zone, including Connecticut and New Hampshire. Eight states, including Oregon and Washington, have laws similar to New York's and require motorists to maintain a safe distance when passing bicyclists.

Tension between Bicyclists and Drivers

Bicyclists have long argued that cars follow too closely on the road. Merrill's law goes a long way toward protecting the right to use the road as well as safety.

Not everyone, however, believes the law is necessary. Some drivers believe bicyclists should be forced to ride on the shoulder of the road or a designated bike lane. Others believe that bicyclists should stay off the road altogether and stick to one of the state's many bike path and trail systems.

Under New York law, bicyclists have the same rights to use the roadway as motorists. The law allows bike riders to ride two abreast, but they must fall back into single file when they are passing vehicles or when vehicles are passing them.

In 2008, there were nearly 5700 bicycle accidents in New York, resulting in more than 5500 injuries and 41 deaths.

Contact Smiley & Smiley, LLP

If you have been the victim of a bicycle accident, contact the personal injury attorneys of Smiley & Smiley, LLP. Call 212-986-2022 or contact us online. Under state law, motorists must share the road with bicyclists and can be held legally responsible for injuries to bicycle riders.