New bicycle buffer law to take effect
Green Party candidate's death underscores county's high pedestrian fatality rate
A new state bicycle safety law is poised to take effect less than two weeks after a recent deadly crash in the county involving a bicyclist and a sport utility vehicle.
The new law, which goes into effect Friday, requires at least a 3-foot buffer between vehicles and bicycles and that motorists yield right-of-way to bicyclists.
Prince George's County with its high population, dense living spaces and few sidewalks along major roads tops the state in pedestrian deaths and fatal motor vehicle crashes, according to the State Highway Administration. More than 100 pedestrians and drivers have died each year since 2002.
"The new law is very specific and does give a specific buffer so the motorist and the rider can share the road safely," said Peter Moe, bicycle safety coordinator for the Maryland Highway Safety Office at the State Highway Administration.
Moe said bicycle safety "is a two-way street."
"When bicycles act like and are treated like vehicles, they do OK," Moe said. "It comes down to the mutual responsibility mutual respect goes a long way."
The penalty for motorists who cause a crash that involves a bicycle, pedestrian or motorcycle face up to a $1,000 fine, the suspension of their driver's license and three points on their driver's license if there's a crash where there's a violation of right of way and serious injury, Moe said.
Prince George's County accounted for about 12 percent of crashes involving bicyclists between 2004 and 2008, Moe said. Of the 40 fatal crashes statewide between 2004 and 2008, Prince George's County had four fatal crashes, which Moe said "isn't the highest and isn't the lowest."
A recent bicycle-involved crash happened around 5:30 a.m. Sept. 19 when Natasha Pettigrew, 30, of Cheverly, Maryland's Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate, was hit by a sport utility vehicle while biking near Largo off Central Avenue and Campus Way and was found by police near the crash site.
She died from her injuries Sept. 20.
Pettigrew, who was the party's nominee for the seat currently held by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), was riding a bicycle when she was hit from behind by Christy R. Littleford, 41, of Upper Marlboro, who was driving a SUV and told police that at first she thought she had hit a deer. She told police she found Pettigrew's bicycle underneath her vehicle upon returning home.
As of Monday, Littleford has not been charged in the crash.
Jim Titus, 55, of Glenn Dale, a board member for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association and the Prince George's County representative for the Maryland Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, said while Pettigrew's crash may be a wakeup call for bicycle and pedestrian safety in the county, it isn't necessary "the perfect example of what is wrong."
"What this is symptomatic of is drivers, particularly in larger vehicles, not looking very closely for smaller things bicyclists, pedestrians, turtles, dogs. Drivers need to look for small things," Titus said. "It really should be a wakeup call, but the reason isn't the precise you don't draw too tight of a nexus until we understand why it happened."
Titus said there is a "mutual misunderstanding" and "a lack of education of safety procedures" between motorists and bicyclists.
"The normal person needs to know what the cyclist is going to do; the cyclist needs to know what the driver is going to do," Titus said. "It behooves cyclists to be very careful, to pay very careful attention to the traffic because the traffic may not be."
Pettigrew's mother, Kenniss Henry of Cheverly, said she has heard that the county has a mixed record when it comes to charging people involved in pedestrian and biking accidents.
"A loss of life is a loss of life," Henry said. "We seriously need to look at how we balance these scales."