Pushed too far, cyclist presses charges
Jason Bultman was pedaling his bicycle up 500 East in Salt Lake City in November when a red pickup zoomed up beside him and a hand swiped across his back.
Startled, the all-seasons bicycle commuter feared he was so close to the truck that it would send him sprawling. Instead the truck veered away, the passenger withdrew inside and Bultman took down the license number for what would become the first reported prosecution of Utah's 2005 law requiring motorists, in most situations, to give cyclists a 3-foot buffer.
Police followed up with the driver and Salt Lake City prosecutors confirmed they filed charges under the 3-foot rule, adopted by the Utah Legislature in response to the 2004 death of University of Utah graduate student Josie Johnson. She died after being hit while cycling in Big Cottonwood Canyon.
"It's kind of interesting that you can actually prosecute someone for violating the 3-foot law," Bultman said. "[People] were saying it's unenforceable."
City prosecutor Sim Gill said his office filed the charge against a George Richard Young, 46, but attempts to find him and serve a summons for an arraignment earlier this month failed. The city will try again before issuing an arrest warrant, he said.
Attempts by The Salt Lake Tribune to reach Young at his last reported address were unsuccessful.
"Just because you happen to be in a motor vehicle doesn't mean you don't have a responsibility to operate in a way that respects everybody's rights to be in the roadway, including bicyclists," Gill said.
The charge is a misdemeanor with up to a possible $750 fine and 90 days in jail, though Gill said there's no minimum mandatory fine and the courts are untested on these matters.
Bultman said authorities gave him several options to charge the passenger, including assault. Instead, he opted for the 3-foot rule, figuring it was the driver who had endangered him by swerving too near.
"I was well off into the shoulder and was all of the sudden brushed," Bultman said. "The guy was hanging out the passenger-side window of the truck. I don't know how the mirror missed me."
If the driver and passenger taunted Bultman in the way he described, they chose the wrong cyclist. Not only was he aware of the new law, but he is president of the Salt Lake City Bicycle Collective. Plus, in 2004 he suffered a crushed ankle in a car-bicycle crash. "My side job in life is to try to educate people that bicycling is a great way to get around town."
Education, not revenge, led him to press charges for what he called a "botched prank" with likely no harm intended.
"Good for him," said another cycling advocate, John Weis, when he heard of Bultman's case. Weis was director of Johnson's graduate pathology program at the U. when she was killed, and he helped lobby for the 2005 legislation.
He had expected the law to raise awareness, but not necessarily draw prosecutions, he said.
"Even before we had the 3-foot law, we had a law that said you can't get too close to a bicyclist, and police told me they had never used it," Weis said.
The law is not easily prosecuted, acknowledged its sponsor, Rep. Roz McGee, D-Salt Lake City. But jailing people was never as important as making drivers more conscious of the necessary buffer, she said.
"Luckily, this incident did not result in bodily injury or death," said McGee.
* ROBERT GEHRKE contributed to this story.