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Missoula cyclists, businesses clarify rules of sharing the road

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MISSOULA, Mont. - A recent upswing of bike and pedestrians accidents around Missoula County had residents asking what the laws really are for road cyclists and vehicles.

NBC Montana looked into the rules and laws in the state, and some may surprise both drivers and cyclists.

Missoula Bicycle and Pedestrian Office program director Ben Weiss says Montana state cycling laws can be confusing because they give cyclists the benefits of drivers and pedestrians.

"Bicyclists have the same vulnerabilities as a pedestrian because you're not encased in metal the way you are in a car, but you are operating more similar to a car. You can't just jump backwards on a bike the way you can when you're walking," Weiss said.

Don Gisselbeck is a veteran at Missoula's Bike Doctor bike shop. He says he's had a few close calls after years of cycling. Gisselbeck described one in particular -- he says he was riding down one street near the University of Montana and moved into a lane of traffic to avoid a pile of leaves. He says a car honked, a police officer stopped him and he received a ticket.

Gisselbeck went to court. "After some deliberation, (the officer) decided that I was riding as far to the right as practical, which I think the law is," he said.

Weiss says Gisselbeck's case is a perfect example of why state law changed in 2015 to better define where cyclists can ride.

For example, Weiss says cyclists can ride in traffic if there are no bike lanes available, but he says there is no law that says cyclists must remain in bike lanes if they are available.

"I think people don't know the rules," said Missoula cyclist Jason McMackin.

Weiss says a common misconception is that cyclists can ride their bikes through a crosswalk, but with a catch. "The big 'but,' is that (cyclists) need to give drivers the opportunity to stop."

Weiss says many drivers are also unaware that Montana law allows drivers to cross double yellow lines to pass cyclists.

He says the city is continually taking steps to improve the cyclist-driver relationship. He says they hired "bike ambassadors" to monitor city streets and converse with cyclists about bike laws and safety.

"When you come up on a cyclist, don't get nervous. Just slow down a little bit and look around," McMackin added. He says a little patience can go a long way.

You can read more on Montana's cyclist and driver laws here.

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