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A bill to establish a safe distance between cars and bicycles sharing the road was voted down by the Senate on Monday after Senate President Scott Sales called cyclists "self-centered” and “rude.”

House Bill 267 was carried by Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell. It had passed the House on a 62-37 vote and cleared a Senate committee last week on a 7-3 vote. It failed on a 24-26 vote on second reading in the Senate and was indefinitely postponed shortly after.

Current law now says vehicles must pass cyclists "without endangering the person riding." But Sen. Jen Gross, D- Billings, who carried the bill in the Senate, said the perception of "safe" varies from driver to driver. The bill would have defined reasonable and prudent as at least 3 feet between vehicle and bicycle at 35 mph or less, and 5 feet at faster speeds.

“It’s a common language with defined distances we can all agree on,” Gross said.

Those who opposed the bill said it was unenforceable because drivers wouldn’t be able to gauge the distance. Sales said if cyclists want more safety, it’s up to them.

“They’re some of the most self-centered, rude people navigating on the highways and county roads I’ve seen. They won’t move over. You can honk at them. They think they own the highway.”

The Senate president also criticized cyclists by saying they use the road without paying a gas tax to support maintenance, and suggested cyclists over the age of 16 should pay a $25 tax.

“They have this entitlement mentality, many of them, that we should just wait for them, and quite frankly I think that’s wrong. … Quite frankly I don't want more of them in the state because there’s already too many of them as it is.”

Raising the gas tax has been hotly debated this session as the fund to help pay for highway improvements has dwindled in recent years with more fuel-efficient vehicles on the road. Garner is also carrying the bill to increase the gas tax by 8 cents. That is still sitting in a House committee waiting to either be passed onto the full House or voted down.

Sen. Dee Brown, R-Hungry Horse, who voted against the bill, said there’s not enough room for drivers to give cyclists that much space. “If we look at just the width of most of our roadways, it’s critical (that) 10-foot wide pickups be able to use the whole lane.”

Sen. Dick Barrett, D-Missoula, said he’s been a cyclist for about 40 years and took offense at Sales’ remarks.

“I frankly resent the characterization of (cyclists) as self-centered and the characterization they don’t pay any taxes,” he said, pointing to where his car was parked outside the Capitol. “The idea (cyclists) are self-centered or disregard traffic or don’t pay taxes is patently ridiculous. It’s just not true.”

Sen. Lea Whitford, D-Browning, said cyclists bring money into towns they travel through.

“The do visit our communities. They stop and they buy things in our communities and I think they are contributing to our state.”

Others including Sen. Roger Webb, R-Billings, joined Sales in voicing frustration at cyclists not obeying the rules of the road. Gross responded that state law already requires those on bicycles to abide by traffic laws and pointed out drivers are already required to judge the distances between their vehicles and other things such as school buses and ambulances.

“We can’t kick bicycles off the road any more than we can ban pedestrians,” Gross said. “What we’re trying to do here is bring clarity to the law. The existing language is very vague.”

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State Bureau reporter for The Independent Record.

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