In Ontario the rules of the road simply state that a safe passing distance be observed by motorists. Here's one very good reason why a specific distance needs to be established and enforced everywhere:
What's the point in having laws if there's no accountability?
It's just one of many questions that San Antonio-area bicyclists are asking after the deaths last week of Gregory and Alexandra Bruehler. The couple were on their tandem bicycle, riding on the shoulder of Highway 16 north of Helotes, when a truck struck them from behind. The Bruehlers left a 7-year-old daughter.
The bicyclists' ire has several targets - reckless drivers and law enforcement's inconsistent handling of auto-bike accidents, for instance. And then there's Gov. Rick Perry, who in June vetoed legislation that would have required motorists to give bicyclists and other "vulnerable road users" a clearance of at least 3 feet when passing on most highways.
For eight years, bicycling advocates worked to get such legislation passed, changing the proposal as necessary to gain widespread support. So sure were they of the bill's success in this legislative session - it passed unanimously in the House and 25-6 in the Senate - they asked the governor's office for a public signing ceremony in hopes of raising awareness of the new law.
But the signing ceremony and the law were never to be. In vetoing the bill, Perry cited penalties that he said already exist when a motorist is at fault for causing a collision, "whether it is against a 'vulnerable user' or not."
That's a politically convenient interpretation.
The state transportation code - a morass of often-broad laws - governs how authorized vehicles and pedestrians use our roads. The code establishes that bicyclists are bound by the same laws that apply to motorists. They must obey stop signs and traffic signals - though, critics point out that many don't - they must signal before they turn and, in general, must follow the rules of the road.
The same code includes provisions for safe passing of slower-moving vehicles. Bicycling advocates sought to give the law a tighter focus and impose penalties - a Class B misdemeanor - on those who violate it. Instead, Perry's veto left the same loose guidelines in place.
The definition of a "safe" passing distance remains in the eye of the beholder. To one driver, giving another vehicle or a vulnerable road user 6 inches of clearance might seem, ahem, safe. To another, it might be 3 feet.
It's foolhardy to believe - and for the governor to claim - that this vague law provides sufficient protection for anyone who isn't riding in a 3,000-pound metal box.
Robin Stallings, executive director of BikeTexas, the educational arm of the Texas Bicycle Coalition, notes the prevailing sentiment among the many prosecutors and judges he's consulted.
"If we can't win, we're not going to try to prosecute. And if we're not going to prosecute, police officers aren't going to write the tickets.
"They don't do it just to have busywork," Stallings said. "They indict to convict."
While there was no guarantee that drivers' behavior would change, the legislation last spring offered some hope that motorists would be more thoughtful about how they behave when driving around bicyclists, joggers, construction workers, stranded motorists, tow-truck operators and others who would have fit the "vulnerable road user" definition under SB 488.
By many accounts, the awareness is sorely needed. Express-News Austin bureau reporter Gary Scharrer previously reported that, of 1,000 Texans who are killed each year in highway crashes involving motorists and pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists, about 400 are pedestrians and about 50 are cyclists, with a peak of 53 deaths last year.
In San Antonio this year, the Bruehlers' deaths mark the second and third auto-bike fatalities.
Last month, former House Speaker Pete Laney's brother-in-law died after he was hit by a vehicle while he rode a bike on a service road of Interstate 20 west of Fort Worth. As with the Bruehlers, a motorist "veered into" Larry McQuien's path, according to published reports.
BikeTexas, meanwhile, has gathered more than 5,000 signatures in a show of protest against Perry's veto. Alex Bruehler was among those who signed the petition.
Some bicycling enthusiasts darkly joke that, when it comes to how bicyclists are treated on the road, they may as well be deer. But deer don't leave little girls as orphans.