Despite confusion from some lawmakers that led to an unexpectedly lengthy discussion prior to the vote, House Bill 2682 passed the Joint Committee on Transportation yesterday by a tally of 7-3.
I’ve described this bill as a no-brainer; but because it involves bicycling, you just never know what some Oregon legislators will get hung up on. I was amazed at how much consternation and discussion this simple housekeeping bill received in committee yesterday.
“The attempt of this bill is to clarify longstanding practice and expectation.”
— Lindsay Baker, ODOT government relations
Let’s be clear: Since bike lanes have existed in Oregon, it has been understood — both by road users and the legal system — that they exist inside intersections even though they are not painted. Same for every other lane. Road authorities do not paint lane lines in intersections because with all the turning movements it would be a maintenance nightmare, dangerously confusing, and useless.
Out of hundreds, if not thousands, of court cases over the years, for some reason two Oregon traffic court judges — one in 2009, one in 2018 — took it upon themselves to decide that a bicycle user did not have the legal right-of-way in a collision because the lane wasn’t painted. Out of concern that these two outlier cases might start a trend, advocates proposed HB 2682. The text of the bill is short and simple.
If passed, HB 2682 would amend Oregon Revised Statute 801.155 (definition of “bicycle lane”) to read: “A bicycle lane exists in an intersection if the bicycle lane is marked on opposite sides of the intersection in the same direction of travel.”
Despite this simple clarification, three lawmakers voted against the bill yesterday: Representative Brad Witt (D-Clatskanie), Representative Lynn Findley (R-Vale), and Representative Rick Lewis (R-Silverton).
Rep. Witt based his opposition on what appears to be a misunderstanding of what the bill actually proposes. “I think we create an exceedingly dangerous situation,” he said, in a discussion prior to the roll being called, “by creating bicycle lanes that go through intersections” (that’s what existing law says). Rep. Witt continued, “It would be reasonable for someone to assume if they are in a marked lane they have a right-of-way. And lanes that are marked on the same side that a car may be turning, I think is a prescription for disaster… I think this bill sets us up for disastrous accidents if it allows for passing on the same side that the lane is in, and I think that bicyclists are going to assume that they have a lane and that it’s safe to be passing vehicles on the side the vehicle is turning on.”
Rep. Lewis said he agrees with Witt, but his main concern is that the bill doesn’t include, “Some sort of traffic signal adjacent to an intersection that indicates a bike lane goes through.” Lewis is concerned that automobile users aren’t able to see all the way to the other side of an intersection and therefore won’t assume the bike lane exists. “A motorist could potentially be found liable if he turns right and hits a bicyclist and didn’t know there was a continuous bike lane on the other side because of the distance,” Lewis said.
“A motorist could potentially be found liable if he turns right and hits a bicyclist and didn’t know there was a continuous bike lane on the other side.”
— Rep. Rick Lewis
Senator Cliff Bentz (D-Ontario) also voiced confusion about existing law and what the proposed bill would do. “The question is, who has the right-of-way as you’re zipping through? If we’re merely painting a line to illustrate the existence of something already legally there, that’s one thing. If by painting the line we are creating a new set of rights, that’s another.”
This bill doesn’t “paint” anything so it’s unclear what Sen. Bentz was referring to.
At this point, Committee Vice-Chair Caddy McKeown felt the need for expert insights and called up Lindsay Baker from the Oregon Department of Transportation government relations office. Baker explained why ODOT never paints lanes through intersections and that the bill is simply to, “Clarify longstanding practice and expectations.”
Unfortunately ODOT’s Baker got one key fact very wrong in her testimony to lawmakers. She said the two decisions where judges ruled unstriped bike lanes have no legal standing were made in the Oregon Court of Appeals and as such, they set a legal precedent. That is incorrect. The two cases were decided in traffic court and no opinion was written.
Thankfully, Portland lawyer and bike law expert Ray Thomas made the trip to Salem and was in the room yesterday just in case this hearing went off the rails. Vice-Chair McKeown called him up and asked him to clarify the bill. Thomas has practiced law with a focus on cycling and traffic issues since 1979. He deftly laid out the rationale behind the bill, countered some of the concerns expressed in previous statements, and explained why this basic clarification is necessary.
After Thomas spoke, the vote was held. The bill passed 7-3. Reps. Lewis and Witt were not swayed by Thomas’ expert insights and Rep. Findley, after saying he agreed with Rep. Witt’s concerns, added a revealing reference to an unrelated bill: “Also, there’s a lot of discussion of adopting the Idaho standard for bicycling; which is, do not stop at intersections, just roll through and keep going. I think coupled with that, it compounds the situation.”
Rep. Findley was referring to Senate Bill 998 which passed committee last week. That bill would allow bicycle users to treat stop signs and flashing red signals as yields. The only connection it has to HB 2682 exists in Rep. Findley’s mind.
From here the bill goes to the full House for a vote and then it will be voted on by the Senate. Be sure to contact your state legislator and let them know how you feel about it.
UPDATE: This bill eventually passed and was signed by the governor. It went into effect January 1, 2020.