Noted lawyer Ray Thomas opposes bill that would mandate rear bike lights

Noted lawyer Ray Thomas opposes bill that would mandate rear bike lights

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Ray Thomas.
(Photo J. Maus/BikePortland)

When Oregon House Representative John Davis proposed making reflective clothing mandatory while bicycling, many people understandably scoffed at the idea. Thankfully, he too apparently realized the absurdity of government intervention into apparel choices and quickly gutted his bill and stuffed it with something else.

Davis’ clothing idea quickly morphed into a bill (HB 3255) that would mandate rear lights on all bicycles (current law calls for only a rear reflector). That seemed like a good idea to me at first glance; but after hearing Portland-based lawyer and bike law expert Ray Thomas‘ opposition to it, I’ve changed my mind.

Thomas called me yesterday to say he was actively working to stop the bill. He has several significant concerns about how the new equipment requirement would impact bicycle riders in Oregon.

Thomas has sent an email to the six members of the Senate Committee on Business and Transportation where the bill currently sits while it awaits a hearing.

Here are the salient points of Thomas’ argument (as taken from his email):

This means that every person and child riding a bike bought from their local bike shop or Fred Meyer store would be in violation of the law if they rode the bike at dusk in their neighborhood without having bought and installed a rear red light, even though every new bicycle purchased in the state of Oregon is already required by federal law to have 8 reflectors installed on it, including 3 reflectors (red to rear, yellow on each pedal) that are activated by the approaching headlights of an overtaking motor vehicle. If these Oregonians are hit by a careless driver HB 3255 would provide a full legal defense to the driver even though the riders had more than adequate rear reflectors already required by Oregon and federal law.

HB 3255 is a bad idea because it heightens Oregon’s requirements of bicycle riders such that it makes all bikes illegal to ride that are presently in a legal state of trim with a white light to the front. Even the safety conscious and conservative Uniform Vehicle Code only requires a red reflector, which is also already Oregon law. ALL bikes when purchased are required by federal law from the CPSC to have an 8 reflector system that includes both rear red reflectors and rear facing pedal reflectors and spoke reflectors.

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And what HB 3255 would do is make it even more difficult to comply with Oregon vehicle law for those least likely to know about it or able to afford the modifications the law would require for every Oregon bicycle in order for it to be legally operated.

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And how will the new law be used? To heap comparative negligence or fault onto a bicycle rider when they get run down by an overtaking motorist who was failing to give them the existing legal minimum passing distance? Who will pay for a statewide TV media buy to inform Oregonians that their bicycles are illegal without rear red lights? How could the fiscal have a big zero on it in the legislature? Did anyone tell legislators that the cost of responsibly informing every Oregonian who rides a bike is going to be in the many thousands of dollars? What about all the ODOT Oregon Driver Manuals and Oregon Bicyclist Manuals that are in classrooms and school libraries that would now be wrong because they tell people that it is legal to ride with a rear red reflector like the one that is already on the rear of their bike?

What is being confused here is the difference between what is a preferred safe riding practice (rear red lights at night) and the legal minimum necessary to ride lawfully at night. Safety advocates uniformly suggest that bikes have rear red lights at best, but at least a rear red reflector. But a preferred safe riding practice should not be transformed into a legal requirement any more than that it should be a state law that only cars with side passenger air bags can be legally operated on Oregon roads.

In his email, Thomas also made the point that if this law passed, many people would discard their existing rear reflectors. Then, if their light stopped working for some reason (batteries or malfunction), they would be left with no visibility aids at all.

When the man who wrote the book on Oregon bicycle law (literally) and has helped craft many existing ones comes out this strongly against a bill, we think it’s worth taking seriously.

HB 3255 has already passed the House by a vote of 44-14. There is no committee hearing scheduled yet (might be worth noting that the House committee it breezed through was vice-chaired by Rep. Davis). We’ll keep you posted.


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