Route 50 Bridge Biking Questions Raised

OCEAN CITY – Last Friday’s fatal accident on the Route 50 Bridge raised some questions this week about how and where bikes are supposed to get across the span, but the answer is there is no right answer.

One bicyclist was killed and another was injured early last Friday morning when they were struck from behind by a motorist while crossing the bridge in the travel lanes. The accident renewed the debate about where bicycles should be on the bridge, whether it is on the sidewalks protected from traffic by a fence or in lanes of traffic.

As it turns out, both are acceptable. Although riding a bike on the roadway is certainly frowned on, particularly at times of peak traffic, there is nothing on the books to prohibit it. Maryland State Police and State Highway Administration (SHA) officials said this week while bike riders are encouraged to use the sidewalks on either side of the bridge, there are no prohibitions in place on bikers using the travel lanes.

“We see people from time to time going over the bridge on bicycles using the travel lanes, and while we don’t necessarily encourage that, we don’t prohibit it either,” said MSP 1st Sergeant Dave Sharp this week. “During certain times of the day, or certain times of the year, it’s more practical to ride across on the roadway, but there are obvious times when that just doesn’t work. We have to rely on the bikers to use some common sense, even if that means getting off the bike and walking it across the bridge.”

Recent history shows relying on bicyclists, pedestrians and motorists to use common sense when sharing the bridge is a slippery slope. While riding a bike across the bridge in the travel lanes is acceptable, heavy vehicle traffic on the roadway often makes it impractical, according to Sharp.

“Certainly, the safer place is on the sidewalk protected by the fence and the curb,” he said. “That being said, sometimes that is difficult given the other activity on the bridge including fishing and pedestrians.”

Sharp said state police and other law enforcement agencies closely monitor traffic on the bridge and do occasionally enforce traffic laws regarding bikes on the span.

“We’ve stopped people before and issued citations,” he said. “Typically, that would occur if somebody is operating a bike in a way that was unsafe, or in a way in obvious violation of the traffic laws. You have to remember, when a person is operating a bicycle on a roadway, they are subject to the same laws as motorists.”

SHA’s viewpoint on bikes crossing the Route 50 Bridge mirrors the MSP policy. While there is nothing on the books to prohibit riding bikes in the travel lanes, SHA officials certainly encourage using the sidewalks.

“The bottom line is, people on bikes are allowed to use that bridge,” said SHA District Engineer Donnie Drewer. “A couple of years ago, we looked at restricting the use of bikes in the lanes of traffic on the bridge, but nothing ever came of it. The bicycle group is a strong lobbying group and they raised hell, and if we go in the other direction, the fishermen raise hell, so we kind of let it go at the time and maintained the status quo.”

Drewer said an effort is already underway to address the confusion surrounding bike traffic.

“What we’re in the process of doing is creating signs to put up encouraging people to walk bikes across that bridge, just dismount and walk their bikes across,” he said. “Encourage is the active word here. They aren’t required by law to do that. In fact, they can ride across in the travel lanes in the middle of Saturday afternoon on the Fourth of July if they want, although we certainly don’t encourage that.”

Even before last Friday’s fatal accident on the bridge, SHA officials were taking a closer look at the unique relationships between vehicles, bikes, pedestrians and fishermen, thanks in large part to a letter written to the state agency by a local woman who frequently rides her bike across the span. In her letter, Amy Thompson implored SHA officials to take a closer look at the safety of the bridge.

“Is there any way to make the bridge more user-friendly for walkers and bicycle riders?” the letter reads. “Currently, walkers, bicyclists and the fishing public must share a very narrow walkway, simultaneously in both directions, which makes for dangerous conditions.”

Two weeks later, SHA Administrator Neil Pedersen sent a letter in response.

”We are currently conducting a safety review of pedestrian, bicycle and fishing activities along the bridge to find ways to reduce the conflicts between the various users of the bridge without having to resort to prohibiting any particular activity,” Pedersen’s letter reads. “Special signs have been ordered that will remind bicyclists to dismount and walk their bikes on the bridge sidewalk. Similar signs, asking people who are fishing to be courteous and to leave room for pedestrian traffic, are in the design process and should also be installed later this summer. … In the meantime, we will monitor activities at various times of the day, analyze volume data and discuss your proposal to limit fishing to one side of the bridge with local and state law enforcement officials, town engineers and other interested local government officials.”