California Finally Passes a 3-Foot Bicycle Passing Law

This has been the most dangerous summer in memory when it comes to car on bike collisions. Drivers seem less aware, more distracted, and less patient. Many accidents, some serious, were caused vehicles passing at high speeds, which is why passage of the Three Feet for Safety Act, Assembly Bill 1371, meant something to me.

California already requires drivers to pass only when safe and at a safe distance and generally that reasonable minimum distance has been interpreted as at least three feet. California has been slow in refining this aspect of traffic safety laws. At least half the states have minimum distance passing laws and some require as much as five feet. This is the fifth time California has tried passing a law of this type. The first two never made it out of committee and the next two were both vetoed. In general, anything bicycle related in the California Legislature is a hot potato, because many legislators and members of the public respond that bikes shouldn’t be on the road at all.

AB 1371 adds section 21760 to the Vehicle Code. It has three requirements –

  1. A driver passing a bicycle, while going in the same direction, must pass at a safe distance and cannot interfere with the safe operation of the bicycle, considering the size and speed of the driver’s vehicle, as well as traffic conditions, weather, visibility, and surface and width of the road.
  2. The driver cannot pass at a distance of less than three feet between any part of the vehicle (including the side mirror) and any part of the bicycle or its rider (including the handlebars).
  3. If the driver cannot pass at a distance of at least three feet as a result of traffic or road conditions, the driver must slow to a reasonable and prudent speed and may pass only when doing so would not endanger the safety of the bicycle rider, considering the size and speed of the driver’s vehicle, as well as traffic conditions, weather, visibility, and surface and width of the road.

A violation may result a fine of $35 or, if a collision occurs as a result of a violation, $220.

These fines are small (as are most fines for negligent acts), but they will help bicyclists. If law enforcement respond to an accident and cite a driver for violating the Three Feet for Safety Act it will substantially bolster any insurance or civil claim the bicycle rider has to make. It would work a lot like rear end collisions caused by “tailgating,” which are typically cited as violations of CVC 22350, also known as the basic speed law. The reasoning is that  if the driver were traveling at a safe and prudent speed, then the driver either allowed more space or could have slowed. Similarly, if an overtaking driver hits a bicyclist, then the driver clearly passed at a distance of less than three feet or failed to pass at a reasonable and prudent speed when it was safe to do so. After an accident, insurance adjusters ask whether law enforcement cited the driver. Evidence of a guilty plea, conviction, or even just a citation can make an insurance claim a virtual slam dunk. You will be paid for your medical expenses, physical therapy, ambulance transportation, lost work days, and other expenses due to your injuries, including your bike.

The hangup here is whether law enforcement will cite drivers for violating CVC 21760. Signs, such as those used in other states, will help to remind drivers to pass safely. Many (perhaps all) could replace the “Share the Road” signs, which in many ways deliver the wrong message to motorists (since many don’t think the signs refer to them). I also have no illusions that motorists will still pass me at insanely high speeds on Garden Highway. However, the publicity of passing AB 1371 has made many more drivers realize they need to pass at a safe distance and that a “safe distance” means at least three feet.

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