Gov. Phil Murphy today signed legislation that will give New Jersey among the most comprehensive safe passing laws in the nation to protect pedestrians and cyclists on the state’s roadways.
The tragic passing of beloved Metuchen resident Oscar Zanoni, who was fatally struck last year by a tractor trailer while riding his electric bicycle on Route 27 in Edison near Vineyard Road, inspired the legislation.
The bipartisan bill, which Senator Patrick J. Diegnan Jr. sponsored in the Senate and Assemblymen Robert Karabinchak and Sterley Stanley sponsored in the Assembly, makes New Jersey the 42nd state to enact some form of a safe passing law.
The three Democratic lawmakers represent New Jersey’s 18th legislative district, which is comprised of seven Middlesex County municipalities including Metuchen and Edison.
“Far too often, a pedestrian’s death could have been avoided if the driver was more aware of the danger posed to people walking and biking along the road,” Karabinchak (D-Middlesex) said.
“New Jersey ranks among the highest pedestrian traffic deaths every year, but with proper education and enforcement of this new law we can change that. Protecting cyclists and pedestrians must be a top safety priority.”
New Jersey’s law requires motorists to adhere to certain safety precautions upon overtaking pedestrians, bicyclists, or scooter riders.
Those precautions include:
- When possible, motorists should make a change to a non-adjacent lane.
- If a lane change is impossible, drivers should leave a distance of at least four feet while approaching and maintain that distance until the motor vehicle has safely passed.
- When it is impossible to make a non-adjacent lane change or maintain at least four feet of distance, the driver should reduce the speed of the motor vehicle to 25 miles per hour or a lower posted speed and be prepared to stop.
Any individual who commits a violation of the provisions that results in bodily injury or harm would be fined $500 and assessed two motor vehicle points. Otherwise, the violator would be fined $100.
“I’m proud to be a sponsor of legislation that makes New Jersey the leader in putting in place protections for bicyclists and pedestrians,” Diegnan (D-Middlesex) said. “What it shows is Oscar’s tragic death has been the impetus to put in place a law that’s going to save the lives of others.”
Debra Kagan, Executive Director of the NJ Bike & Walk Coalition, said a boom in the last year of road use by those walking, bicycling, and using scooters, and the increased risk of serious injury or death, spotlighted a need for the safe passing law.
According to data from the New Jersey State Police Fatal Accident Investigation Unit, a total of 197 pedestrians and cyclists died in 2020 on state roadways, accounting for 34 percent of New Jersey’s fatal crashes that year.
“Unfortunately, 34% of those killed on the roads are our most vulnerable users, who are also more likely to be people of color, the elderly, people without access to a vehicle and from low-income neighborhoods,” said Janna Chernetz, Deputy Director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign.
“New Jersey’s rate of pedestrian fatalities increased 9% more than the national average last year as 197 people in the state lost their lives walking and bicycling. In fact, New Jersey had the eighth highest number of pedestrian deaths in the country in 2020. The state must act proactively to prevent crashes from happening. This law is an effective and necessary step towards that goal.”
The safe passing law, according to Jim Hunt, a volunteer legislative coordinator for the NJ Bike & Walk Coalition, provides motorists with clear, enforceable guidelines about when and how to pass the most vulnerable on roadways.
“Sharing the road is incredibly important and something as simple as a lane change or reducing a vehicle’s speed will help prevent future accidents and injuries,” Stanley (D-Middlesex) said. “Mandating these precautions is important in promoting and prioritizing road safety. As we start to expand infrastructure to facilitate healthy and environmentally friendly activities, we must ensure that we are protecting the individuals and communities that enjoy them.”
The signing comes exactly one week after a memorial was conducted at the Metuchen Municipal Complex in honor of Zanoni, which Bike/Walk Metuchen and NJ Vision Zero Alliance hosted.
The planned outdoor July 29 celebration of Zanoni’s life was abruptly transformed into an indoor event due to the threat of severe storms, but the change in venue could not dampen the spirit of the bittersweet occasion.
A commemorative walk and ride to honor Zanoni’s life and the state legislature’s approval of the safe passing bill, which the full Senate (S2208) and Assembly (A5570) advanced to Murphy’s desk in June, was scheduled to precede the July 29 memorial outside Metuchen’s borough.
An ominous weather forecast, however, canceled the prelude and forced attendees inside the two-story brick building on Main Street, where Diegnan evoked a thunderous round of applause, telling those gathered – including friends and family of Zanoni, as well as safety advocates and relatives of other unsafe passing victims – that Murphy was indeed going to sign the safe-passing bill into law.
“That was one of the most incredible moments that I personally got to experience in a long time,” said Metuchen Councilman Jason Delia, who was among the bill’s lead advocates. “This is something people in that room have been working on for many years, so to see it come to a culmination in real time was a fantastic experience for us.”
The July 29 memorial, which Zanoni’s life partner, Wendy Kukowski, and siblings, Carla and Lee, attended, was held on what would have been Zanoni’s 46th birthday.
“It is truly amazing that Oscar has a legacy that will ensure that lives are saved and
injuries are prevented on our New Jersey roadways now and for future generations,” Kukowski said. “He will be forever missed and now forever remembered.”
Assemblywoman Lisa Swain (D-Bergen), a triathlete who also sponsored the safe passing bill, spoke during the July 29 memorial about having the ability to make a difference. The irony of the occasion was not lost on the lawmaker.
“It is unfortunate that we are here today on Oscar’s birthday celebrating this and cheering that the governor is going to sign (the bill into law), because so many of us have been working on this for years and maybe we could have prevented what happened to Oscar,” Swain said.
Hunt said the legislation’s passage follows more than a decade of education and advocacy from the NJ Bike & Walk Coalition, Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, Tri-State Transportation Campaign and the grassroots TEAM4 the NJ Safe Passing Law.
“Sometimes the stars align for whatever reason,” Swain said. “All of a sudden, there was a movement between the senator’s office and the assembly, Wendy, (rising Ridgewood High School senior and four-time New Jersey youth road racing cycling champion) Michaela (Tsapatsaris), the advocates, the activists. And we all came together to make this bill a law.”
Karabinchak said the bill will forever be a part of Zanoni’s legacy, leaving an indelible imprint statewide that will “never go away.”
“On behalf of all the partners involved in this effort,” Kagan said, “we want to thank the senators and assembly members who recognized the urgent need for what will now be one of the most comprehensive safe passing laws in the country.”
Delia said he and the entire Metuchen community were “devastated” upon learning “Oscar was struck and killed while riding his bike by a tractor trailer passing too close.”
“Everyone seemed to know Oscar because of his big, friendly personality, and how he rode around town on his bike,” Delia said. “Due to a childhood illness, Oscar was unable to operate a car, so he rode his bike everywhere. You could always count on seeing Oscar and his bike at one of our downtown events, the Farmers Market, or riding through town on an errand.”
According to his obituary, Zanoni was a dog lover who “lived his life at full throttle.” He was always quick to lend a hand to those who needed help, whether that meant walking their pets or shoveling a sidewalk.
A GoFundMe page established to assist Kukowski with funeral costs and living expenses said Zanoni survived a brain aneurysm at the age of 9 that left him with physical and neurological impairments.
“He went from a coma to a vegetative state to learn how to walk and eat and talk again,” the page stated. “Oscar felt truly blessed that he was alive and shared that with everyone.
“Oscar was truly a very inspirational, special man who shared his story and heart freely.”