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In crosswalks, bicyclists now have the same legal right of way as people on foot

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A bicyclist crosses along the 1600 block of S. Blaine St. in a crosswalk during heavy traffic recently. Nebraska cyclists now have the same right as pedestrians while in crosswalks. (Independent/Andrew Carpenean)

Until three weeks ago, Nebraska bicyclists who were hit by a car in a crosswalk sometimes experienced two types of pain. Not only were they injured by a car, but they were also cited for failure to yield.

The Nebraska Bicycling Alliance has heard several stories of bicyclists who were lying in a hospital bed and served with a citation. They had no legal recourse “even though they were doing everything right,” said Julie Harris of Omaha, executive director of the Nebraska Bicycling Alliance. The bike riders were crossing streets while riding in crosswalks with a green light.

Since July 21, though, bicyclists run over in crosswalks don’t have to worry about legal repercussions. A law that went into effect that day gives Nebraskans on bikes the same legal right of way in crosswalks as people on foot.

“That was definitely an injustice that we wanted to make sure to remedy — to make sure that pedestrians and bicyclists are given the same consideration,” Harris said.

The change was one of two provisions in a bill, LB716, passed by the Legislature earlier this year. The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Rick Kolowski of Omaha, also eliminated an outdated mandatory sidepath provision that was in Nebraska statutes.

That provision required people on bikes to ride on a trail if one was adjacent to a street. It offered no exceptions, such as if a trail was in poor condition or if a person needed to get into a turning lane to continue in a different direction.

The mandatory sidepath law has been repealed nationwide by almost every state, Harris said. People realized long ago it was not good policy, but “Nebraska still had it lingering” on the books.

Under the old law, bicyclists were required to use a trail even if it was full of glass or snow hadn’t been removed.

State Sen. Mike Gloor of Grand Island, who was one of the co-sponsors of LB716, said the crosswalk change was “sort of a no-brainer.”

The old law ignored “the reality of the increased number of bike paths that are out there” and the fact that many make use of pedestrian crossings for bicyclists, Gloor said.

Getting rid of the requirement to use bike trails when parallel to a street was also a good move, said Gloor, who is a bike rider himself.

As an example, he pointed to the bike path near Stuhr Museum, parallel to Highway 281.

Highway 281 has a “wide safety lane that lends itself to riding a bicycle on it if you want to,” he said. It was silly to force a bicyclist to get off 281 “and walk across the ditch to get to a bicycle path,” then do the same thing to get back to the highway later, Gloor said.

A short stretch of South Locust Street required bicyclists to do the same, Gloor said. Both 281 and South Locust see “a reasonable amount of bike traffic,” Gloor said.

He’s seen other parts of the state, including Seward, where the law made unnecessary demands on bike riders.

No one seems to know where the old requirement came from, Gloor said. He doubts if law enforcement felt the need to enforce the measure.

Does the Nebraska Bicycling Alliance lobby Nebraska legislators? “We educate,” Harris said, laughing.

In Nebraska, it is legal to ride a bicycle on the sidewalk, Grand Island police officer Jesse Parker said.

State law holds that a bicyclist on the sidewalk “shall have all the rights and duties applicable to a pedestrian under the same circumstances but shall yield the right of way to pedestrians.”

In the summer, Gloor tries to ride a bike at least two or three times a week.

“People need to wear helmets,” Gloor said. “It’s not a law, but it’s common sense.”

A helmet will come in handy for every bike rider eventually.

“It’s inevitable,” said Gloor, who also walks and jogs. “You will fall if you ride your bike enough. And when you do, speaking from experience, you just can’t protect your head. You just can’t.”

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