Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on April 29th, 2010 at 12:02 pm
(File photo from a news conference in 2008 © J. Maus)
"We have a mutant status on the roadway." That's one way lawyer Ray Thomas tried to describe the often confusing and misunderstood legal standing of people who walk and bike on the streets of Oregon.
His comment came during a special edition of the monthly legal clinic hosted at Thomas' Swanson, Thomas and Coon law firm. This month's clinic (put together by Thomas along with the BTA and the Willamette Pedestrian Coalition (WPC)) was intended to educate local journalists about biking and walking laws so we can do a better job on our stories.
The turnout was a bit disappointing, but with short-staffed newsrooms and busy schedules, it was understandable. There were more advocates in the room than working journalists. The two that did show up (besides myself and freelancer/activist Elly Blue) were Laurie Robinson from The Oregonian and Brian Stimson from The Skanner.
"We don't see collisions and crashes as 'accidents'... All crashes are preventable, it's not a matter of 'accidents happen, too bad.'"
-- Ray Thomas
In the conference room, there was a leaflet from the WPC that blared, "Because everyone is a pedestrian" (I wish it said "Because everyone walks," but that's for another post). There were also stacks of Thomas' excellent reference books, Pedal Power: A Legal Guide for Oregon Bicyclists, and Oregon Pedestrian Rights: A Legal Guide for Persons on Foot.
After brief introductions, Ray Thomas -- a man who is equal parts bike enthusiast (he races and is the founder of the famous weekly "Lawyer Ride") activist, and lawyer -- took over the room.
Thomas didn't hold back (nearing diatribe level at some points) in his nearly hour-long presentation. He listed in detail the many points of contention he has with biking and walking laws that are either repeatedly misrepresented or completely absent from most local news coverage. Thomas said (as anyone who reads comment threads on local TV stations can attest) it's imperative for journalists to better inform the public about traffic laws because, "It's an opportunity to raise the lowest common denominator in our community."
Thomas accused journalists of too often "punting" instead of outlining applicable traffic statutes in their stories and implored them to do more often in order to "raise everybody's collective knowledge."
With that, Thomas presented us with a long list of laws, issues, and other legal insights he felt merited more attention. Here are some of things he shared (paraphrased):
-- "We don't see collisions and crashes as 'accidents'... All crashes are preventable, it's not a matter of "accidents happen, too bad."
-- Thomas does not like when reporters write, "No citations were issued" (a common line in stories on crashes) because it gives the false perception that the party involved was not guilty of anything. Instead of (or in addition to) writing that, Thomas said it's important to point out that "current police policy is not to conduct an investigation or issue citations unless someone is taken away in an ambulance."
-- Conflicts between non-motorized users should be a story on local media's radar screen. Thomas explained the interesting legal issues around situations where runners use bike lanes. "Runners in bike lanes are to bikers what bikers on sidewalks are to pedestrians." (If you're taking notes, that means joggers must yield to people riding bikes in a bike lane and people on bikes must yield to people walking/jogging on the sidewalk).
-- Motor vehicle operators must yield to people using the sidewalk. He also went into detail about how he detests the Oregon law that states people on bikes have the right-of-way in crosswalks and sidewalks but only if they are going at "walking speed".
-- Both people operating cars and bikes must stop for people who are trying to cross or who are in the act of crossing the street. This is a pet peeve of mine too -- when someone on a bike speeds past stopped cars who are waiting for someone walking. Law says all vehicles -- bikes and cars -- must stop.
-- Thomas thinks the law about where it's legal for people to ride bikes on sidewalks is overly confusing and detrimental to getting more people on bikes. Not only did he ridicule that in Portland you can get a $500 fine for riding a bike on a sidewalk, but he said we should create an exception in the law for young people like they have in New York City (where 13 and under can use sidewalks). (If you're taking notes, in Portland it's illegal to ride a bike on the sidewalk within the boundaries of SW Jefferson, Front/Naito, NW Hoyt, and 13th Ave.)
-- Another big one, which I only recently learned myself, is that while the law says vehicles must stop for someone trying to cross at an intersection, that person can't just jump out in the street and expect everyone to stop. The law states the vehicle operator must be able to stop in a way that does not "constitute an immediate hazard" to themselves or other road users; meaning, there has to be reasonable time for the person to see you and then stop their vehicle*.
*(UPDATE: The applicable statute here is 814.840, which states: "A pedestrian commits the offense of pedestrian failure to yield to a vehicle if the pedestrian... Suddenly leaves a curb or other place of safety and moves into the path of a vehicle that is so close as to constitute an immediate hazard." Thomas says this is a "legal opening for drivers to argue after a collision that there was no room to stop."
Rounding out his presentation, Thomas pointed to a vintage bike map of Portland from 1895 (that's 18, not 19) and reminded everyone that "We were here first!" People on bikes were kind enough to share the roads with the four-wheeled newcomers, now he said, it's important to remember to return the favor.
In addition to the "mutant status" reference -- which Thomas made in trying to explain the laws around bike riders' legal right to the lane -- another funny term he used was "urban deer phenomenon." This, Thomas said, was the psychology of some people when they're driving to worry that people on bikes are totally unpredictable (like a deer).
After Thomas spoke, there were great questions and interactions between Thomas and the reporters in the room. All in all it was an important and valuable event. The more reporters know about these issues, the better their coverage will be, and everyone in our city will benefit.
- Learn more about bike law from Thomas' excellent online article archive.
UPDATE: To follow up on the
DISCLAIMER: Mr. Thomas and his law firm currently advertise on BikePortland.org.