Perry and the Demise of Safe Passage

Cycling advocates scratch their heads at Perry's veto of the Safe Passage bill

Perry and the Demise of Safe Passage
Photo by Jana Birchum

It seems like simple courtesy: If you're driving past a cyclist or a roadside worker, move over. But Gov. Rick Perry ignored lawmakers, the overwhelming majority of Texans who contacted him, and common sense when he vetoed Senate Bill 488, the Safe Passage bill that would have made that courtesy mandatory. Now road safety advocates are scratching their heads over why he would do that.

Leslie Luciano, advocacy manager for Austin's Bicycle Sport Shop, said a lot of work went into turning good driving into good law. "We nurtured that bill through a lot of committee hearings," she said, "and when there were concerns, they were addressed." In 2007 a similar bill covering only cyclists failed, so SB 488 defined a new class of vulnerable road users, including horse riders, roadside workers, and stranded motorists. All the bill required was for drivers to move into the next lane when passing a vulnerable road user or, on a single-lane road, move over a safe distance (3 feet for a car, 6 feet for a truck).

The signs were good: The bipartisan bill was authored by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and sponsored by Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Dallas. Industry groups such as the Texas Cable Association and the Texas Towing & Storage Association, as well as law enforcement and AARP, supported extending the definition of a vulnerable road user, and there are similar laws in 15 other states, with Louisiana and Tennessee both having passed legislation this year. With that momentum, SB 488 passed both chambers with overwhelming support. "We got an indication from the Governor's Office that there was no opposition," Luciano said. "In fact, we had asked for a signing ceremony."

Instead, what supporters received was a veto statement in which Perry said the bill was unreasonable because it "places the liability and responsibility on the operator of a motor vehicle." Ellis had a simple response to that: "There was no good reason to oppose it, and the governor made a mistake in vetoing it."

In an attempt to understand the veto, Luciano submitted an open records request under the Texas Public Information Act. Perry must have had some good reason, she thought – some convincing argument or overwhelming public outcry against the bill. "I asked for every letter, e-mail, phone call, visit, or concern about the bill," she said. She got a surprising response. Of all public communication Perry received on the bill, 2,244 were for it and only 87 against. Only one of the letters opposed the bill. As for the e-mails, she said, "It looked like 50 were against it, but seven of those were on [an unrelated bill], one of those was counted four times, one was counted twice, and one was actually a proponent." As for phone calls, the office only recorded the number of calls. Describing her own experience, she said: "They didn't ask what your name is, they didn't ask if you're a legitimate constituent or not, they just asked, 'Are you for SB 488 or against it? Thank you.' Click."

The bill wasn't carte blanche for bad cyclists, Luciano said, nor was Perry correct when he said existing laws are sufficient. She explained: "The prosecutors that helped author this bill told us the current statutes have no teeth. Essentially, if a car hits a cyclist and the car is at fault, they have not been able to prosecute because the wording of the statutes is vague and there is no clear-cut definition of safe passage."

The battle isn't over, said Luciano. The Texas Bicycle Coalition has launched a petition to get the terms of SB 488 back next session, but Ellis warned that Perry could face a political price for this act well before then. "Senator [Kay Bailey] Hutchison will need crossover votes to win her primary," he said, referring to the upcoming gubernatorial elections, "and a few thousand angry cyclists could make a difference."

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