COLUMBIA -- Roads would be safer for both motorists and bicyclists under a bill that cleared a key Senate committee Wednesday, supporters and senators said.
"We're already challenged to find enough road space to operate the number of cars that we have, and now we're trying to accommodate bicyclists, but it's one of those challenges we're going to have to face," said Sen. Danny Verdin, R-Laurens. "This is a good start."
Verdin is a Senate Transportation Committee member. The committee unanimously passed the bill, which goes to the Senate floor. It has cleared the House.
If passed, the bill for the first time would require motorists to keep a "safe operating distance" from bicyclists. That distance was left undefined in the bill.
The new requirement would mean that if a motorist strikes a bicyclist, that would strongly indicate the motorist was not keeping a safe distance and therefore was breaking the law.
"This should have been passed years ago," said 5th Circuit Solicitor Barney Giese. He said this will give a needed legal tool to prosecute motorists who hit bicyclists. Now, it's a gray area, he said.
South Carolina had the seventh-highest bicyclist fatality rate in the nation in 2006, according federal statistics.
Becky Giblin, the mother of 15-year-old cyclist Rachel Giblin, who was struck and killed by a truck driver in 2006 during a multiple sclerosis charity ride, was heartened by news of the committee's action.
"This will save lives," she said, "giving better guidance on how motorists and cyclists can co-exist."
Rachel was killed on a sunny stretch of road in Darlington County. The driver was not charged.
Another provision that could be added when the bill is debated in the full Senate is an amendment to make it against the law for a motorist to harass a bicyclist.
"There's a certain group of people out there that try to harass people when they're biking," said Sen. John Hawkins, R-Spartanburg.
Some motorists frighten bicyclists by coming close behind them and blowing their horn, and once, someone in a vehicle tossed a firecracker in front of his bicycle, Hawkins said.
"It's ignorant," Hawkins said. "People do it, they get their jollies."
Committee members instructed staff to put Hawkins' proposal in legal form. Such harassment would be a misdemeanor. The full Senate will consider it.
Bicycling supporters at the meeting said later Hawkins raised a significant issue.
They said it is commonplace for cyclists to be harassed by a minority of motorists, who hoot, blow horns and toss objects all of which might cause a rider to crash and get injured.
"If you talk to anyone who's ridden a lot, they will have at least one bad experience, from people hurling profanity at them to in one case a motorist shooting a cyclist with a pellet gun," said Brian Curran, owner of Columbia's Outspokin' bicycle shop.
The relative ease with which the bill cleared the Senate Transportation Committee illustrated how grass-roots citizen action and quiet lobbying help educate and persuade senators.
For more than a year, cycling supporters have retained two professional lobbyists, Matthew Van Patton and Rebecca Ramos, to talk with lawmakers. They also have made sure senators heard from hometown bicyclists. As a result, objections have been answered, and the bill has been tweaked as it traveled through the Legislature.
"The lobby is certainly well-organized and effective," Verdin said. "All of us have probably heard from our local cyclists."
For example, the original bill required that drivers stay 5 feet from bicyclists. But the bill now says drivers must observe a "safe operating distance " a recognition that safe distance varies by road circumstances.
Before the meeting, Sen. Catherine Ceips, R-Beaufort, said bicycling is a wholesome American pastime good for health, saving fuel and business.
"This is motherhood and apple pie," she said.