Columbia's cyclist harassment law fixes phantom problem, creates real ones

Sunday, August 23, 2009 | 12:47 a.m. CDT; updated 9:21 p.m. CDT, Monday, August 24, 2009

I will wager that most of you who dabble in e-mail have received Lori Borgman’s tongue-in-cheek treatise, “The Death of Common Sense (CS).” For those unfamiliar, I will paraphrase: “Three yards of black fabric enshroud my PC. I am mourning the passing of an old friend, Common Sense. His obituary: CS lived a long life but died from heart failure – no one really knows how old he was, his birth records were entangled in miles and miles of bureaucratic red tape."

It goes on to ridicule unnecessary rules, regulations and prohibitions, concluding with: “At the end, CS drifted in and out of logic but was kept informed of developments regarding regulations on low flow toilets. Memorial contributions may be sent to the Institute for Rational Thought.”

Sadly, this is not a rare phenomenon but one almost endemic to governments when well-meaning citizens create a divisive issue by manufacturing a solution to a problem not in existence. We have seen this happen here with the smoking ban on private businesses when there was already a sufficient number of nonsmoking establishments available for customer and employee choice. And, the institution of a Citizens Police Review Board is similarly unnecessary as the requisite oversight is present in the Police Department's professional standards unit, the City Council, the city manager and our ever-vigilant media.

Entering this category also is the ill-advised and counterproductive bicyclist harassment law, of which I have written unfavorably in the past. I actually had a bit of optimism for revival of the late "Common Sense" when Fourth Ward Councilman Jerry Wade urged the ordinance be suspended for six months in order that less inflammatory alternatives be considered. Those hopes were dashed when the Second Ward’s Jason Thornhill was the sole supporter — instead, the council signaled its intent to add other nonmotorized transport and pedestrians to the mix. Let us hope People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other animal and special-interest groups are not incited to participate as well.

To be brutally frank, this cyclist harassment ordinance is the unwelcome by-product of a few puerile and self-important cyclists, emboldened by the PedNet and GetAbout Columbia notoriety, who have built a mountain from a molehill. While no one can dispute that there will always be a few careless, inconsiderate, dangerous or malevolent operators of bicycles and motor vehicles alike, their collective existence is hardly Armageddon looking for a place to happen.

In reality, the majority of motorists and cyclists are responsible and will continue to coexist on our roads and streets as before. A permanent resident for 22 years, I have been a Columbia driver since 1953, and, while I have observed moronic maneuvers from motorists and bicyclists alike, I have seen little to cause an entire city to go to general quarters over the antics of a few inconsiderate or adolescent motorists or cyclists.

Although cyclists do enjoy the same rights on our streets and roads as do motorists, they must be extra alert and act with prudence and judgment as there are streets too narrow to accommodate safely two-way traffic of cycles and automobiles. Roads without shoulders are similarly not conducive to safe operation of both bikes and autos. And in Columbia, a city endorsing bicycle transportation, motorists have to be extra alert while cyclists must eschew such acts as overtaking a halted auto on the right and darting through the intersection while the auto is executing a right turn.

The utter disdain in which I hold this ordinance is not without logic. First, unless a police officer happens to be present, it is virtually impossible to enforce. Second, contrary to the claims that citizen resistance to the anti-hassling fiat is limited to a few writers of letters to editors, I have yet to encounter a friend or anyone else who doesn’t believe it to be a joke, a travesty and an unneeded added burden to law enforcement personnel.

Councilman Wade got it exactly right in realizing the council's reaction to an overdose of emotion in enacting the ordinance in June — he and Mr. Thornhill earned our respect in supporting its suspension to determine an appropriate alternative. In refusing to admit overreacting in haste by not owning up to an error in judgment, the remainder of the City Council failed to serve the best interests of the city and their constituents.

Sadly, enactment of this ordinance created an adversarial relationship between motorists and cyclists, an enmity that is absolutely absurd. In the hope of encouraging a measure of sanity, I offer these words: “Nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced” (Albert Einstein) and Abraham Lincoln’s “The best way to get a bad law repealed is to enforce it strictly.” Let’s hope someone is listening.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at

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