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Federal Magistrate: Bicyclists  must stay to right of traffic

GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

HADLEY — A federal magistrate has ruled that bicyclists must ride to the right of traffic unless safety issues dictate otherwise.

That conclusion was reached in a 54-page decision released by U.S. Magistrate Judge Kenneth P. Neiman in connection with a complaint brought in 2011 by bicyclist Eli Damon of Easthampton against the Hadley Police Department.

Hadley police say Damon rode his bicycle in the middle of the farthest right lane in a four-lane section of Route 9 during heavy traffic. One police report describes cars traveling slowly behind Damon while he waved for them to pass him in the left lane. Damon had numerous confrontations with motorists while riding in the lane’s center, according to court documents.

Damon filed suit against the town alleging he had a right to ride in the roadway, and that Hadley police were targeting him for harassment.

While Neiman did not rule on all of the allegations of harassment, he weighed in on the right-to-the-road question.

Neiman wrote that much of the dispute between the town and the bicyclist comes down to differing interpretations of state traffic laws.

Town attorneys argued that bicyclists must ride “as close as practicable” to the right side of the roadway unless there is no faster traffic in the right-hand lane or when preparing to make a left turn.

Andrew M. Fischer, a Boston lawyer representing Damon, argued that because there is a passing lane to the left, Damon is free to ride in the center of the right lane continuously, which he contends is safer than riding on the right side of the road.

“Neither side has the interpretation of these various provisions quite right,” Neiman wrote after examining the state’s traffic laws. “The court ... has little trouble concluding that Massachusetts law requires a slower-traveling bicyclist to pull to the right to allow a faster-traveling motorist to pass when it is safe to do so under the circumstances.”

Meantime, allegations of malicious prosecution, illegal seizure of property and civil rights violations against two police officers will move to a jury trial in December.

The case revolves around three traffic stops in Hadley between August 2009 and March 2010 in which Damon, 36, formerly of Amherst, alleges police harassed him for riding in traffic along Route 9 in Hadley. During one stop, police seized his bicycle and a video camera attached to his helmet, which Damon was using to record his interactions with police to protect himself, according to his complaint.

State traffic laws require bicyclists to “give way to the right in favor of the overtaking vehicle” and prohibits bicyclists from “unnecessarily” obstructing “the normal movement of traffic,” according to Neiman’s ruling.

Motorists may only pass bicyclists at a safe distance when passing within the same lane or they must wait until a safe opportunity to pass by using all or part of an adjacent lane.

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