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Nathan’s Law: School’s in session for bicycle and motorcycle safety

October 28, 2014 by Steven M. Gursten

New HB 5438 requires Michigan driver’s education courses to teach about sharing the road with bicyclists and motorcyclists

Nathan Bower Law Michigan
Nathan Bowers, a teenage motorcyclist who was tragically killed, inspired Nathan’s Law.

When is the best time to teach drivers how to safely share the road with bicyclists and motorcyclists? Before they hit the road, of course. And before they hit and injure someone who is riding a bike and motorcycle.

In other words, during driver’s education.

That’s the point of House Bill 5438, also known as “Nathan’s Law” or the “Nathan Bower Act,” which was passed unanimously by both Houses of the Michigan Legislature, and signed by Gov. Rick Snyder on October 14, 2014.

Under HB 5438, bicycle and motorcycle safety awareness will be specific components of the Michigan driver education course’s Segment 1 “classroom instruction” curriculum:

“Classroom instruction shall include information concerning the laws pertaining to bicycles and motorcycles and shall emphasize awareness of their operation on the streets, roads, and highways of this state.”

The Segment 1 driver education course’s curriculum consists of not less than 24 hours of “classroom instruction,” not less than 6 hours of “behind-the-wheel instruction” and 4 or more hours of “behind-the-wheel observation time.” (MCL 256.657)

As an attorney who has litigated a number of very serious bicycle and motorcycle accident cases, this “behind the wheel” observation time is critical.  I’ve found there are often three big reasons why bicycle and motorcycle accidents with cars occur, and this law addresses all three. The first is that motorists see, but they don’t process, that a bicycle or motorcycle is there because they aren’t expecting to see it. In other words, even though the driver sees it, it doesn’t register. So the driver changes lanes and hits the person on the bike or motorcycle.

The second reason is that motorists are generally lousy at judging speed, and make driving decisions such as turning into traffic based upon gaps between cars and how quickly those gaps will close. And we are just as lousy at judging the speed of someone on a bike or motorcycle.  In fact, even more so.

The third reason is motorists have no idea about how much space or cushion they should be giving to a bicyclist.  This is the single biggest cause of most of the bike injury accidents I’ve litigated. It is also what makes the new “3 foot rule” in states like California so interesting, and why I believe the rule should also be applied to Michigan.

Rep. Terry L. Brown (D-Pigeon, MI), who sponsored HB 5438, said the goal of his bill was to change “driver education in Michigan to put more emphasis on bicycle and motorcycle safety.”

Rep. Brown added:

“Learning to share the road with bikes and motorcycles is a very important lesson for new drivers to learn. … If we instill the need to share the road at a young age, we could prevent many accidents and fatalities.”

The idea for HB 5438 originated with one of Rep. Brown’s constituents, Lisa Cook-Gordon, of Melvin, Michigan, who brought it to Rep. Brown’s attention after her friend, Nathan Bower, a 19-year-old motorcyclist was tragically killed in a 2009 motor-vehicle-motorcycle crash.

The League of Michigan Bicyclists was a strong and very vocal supporter of HB 5438, emphasizing in its May 28, 2014, written testimony to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, that not only does the current drivers’ education program give too little time to the importance of motorists safely sharing the road with bicyclists, but the program fails to keep pace with new developments:

“[A]s innovative bicycle infrastructure continues to be installed as a result of Complete Streets improvements, it is imperative that our driver’s education curriculum keep up with these changes to ensure drivers know how to safely interact with an increasing number of cyclists using Michigan’s changing roadways.”

The LMB also noted that, according to the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning, the number of bicyclists killed in crashes involving cars and trucks increased by 35% between 2012 and 2013.

ABATE of Michigan also supported the bill, explaining in its May 28, 2014, written testimony to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that passage of HB 5438 will enable ABATE to continue to share its experience, expertise and “Look Twice to Save a Life” message with driver education classes throughout the state.

Related information:

How can I drive safety around motorcycles in Michigan?


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