Space -- The Final Frontier

Categories: bikes
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Musketeers. Little Pigs. The number of polyester-era sitcom stars before you officially
have "Company." Many things seem to come in threes -- just hopefully not gubernatorial
vetoes of legislation intended to keep bicyclists safe.

Acting on the proposition that the third time really is a charm, Los Angeles County
Assemblyman Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) has offered the following tweak to the
California Vehicle Code:

The bill would prohibit, with specified exceptions, the driver of the motor vehicle
that is overtaking or passing a bicycle proceeding in the same direction on a
highway from passing at a distance of less than 3 feet between any part of the motor vehicle and any part of the bicycle or its operator. (emphasis added)

This is yet another iteration of the so-called "three-foot passing law." And, yes, we have
been here before.

Consider the fate of Senate Bill 910, which would have required drivers to maintain "a minimum clearance of 3 feet" when sidling by cyclists from behind.

October 2011: vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown.

Then there was Senate Bill 1464. Minding the governor's previous objection, any
language requiring drivers to slow down in addition to maintaining safe distance when
passing cyclists was struck. Leaner and more flexible than its legislative antecedent, 1464
just asked for the three feet.

Alas, September 2012: vetoed again.

According to text of the veto itself, Brown didn't object to the three-foot rule in and of
itself ("I applaud the author's continuing work to improve bicycle safety," he wrote), but
to a provision in the bill allowing drivers to edge over a double yellow line, if needed to
preserve the yard-wide bike buffer.

"Crossing a double yellow line is an inherently dangerous act," wrote the governor
before sending the bill back to the legislature. "When a collision occurs, it will result
in a lawsuit where the state is likely to be sued."

Perhaps the law could have been written in such a way that would have put the onus
to safely cross over a double yellow (say, not right before a blind turn) squarely
on the driver. Perhaps, that's what Bradford has in mind. We won't know for a little while yet; Bradford's office says they aren't quite ready to talk details.

Either way, this year's version of the three-foot passing law has been referred to
committee. So, here we go again. Assembly Bill 1371: Pass Safe with a Vengeance.


I should say that, at least in my capacity as a frequent rider of bikes, I am a pretty lucky
guy. I have never been in a serious accident while on my bike and of the few bumps
and scrapes I've received along the way, the only party that has ever been involved or at
fault has been me. (On that note: it's raining this weekend, so watch those slippery Muni
tracks.)

But as someone who has been in enough near-misses, my overriding response to a law like this is an emphatic why not?

To put a little statutory breathing space between cyclists and the steel-girded internal
combustion engines that whiz by them on the road? Why not? To further codify the right
of bicyclists to take up as much lane space as we might need to feel safe? Why not? To
remind certain drivers that while being forced to wait until the other lane clears before
passing may not be the worst thing in the world?

Why not?

That said, "why not?" is hardly a rousing endorsement. Certainly, a law requiring drivers
to give cyclists a three-foot berth when passing would be nice. Drivers actually giving us
those three feet in practice would be a whole lot nicer.

In 2010, Maryland passed its own three-foot passing law (Maryland is one of 24
states, plus the District of Columbia, that has a "defined distance standard," says the League of American Bicyclists). In an assessment  of that law published two years after its passage, researchers at Johns Hopkins found that 15 percent of the surveyed passes still swiped by within a yard.

This is not so surprising. Mandatory passing distance laws, like so many rules of the road,
tend to be followed selectively. Cyclists, as you will learn from any comment thread
on any article about bicyclists posted anywhere on the Internet, will sometimes breeze
through stop signs or red lights. Some drivers, as I've pointed out in previous posts,
treat bike lanes like personal (double) parking spaces. 

This is perhaps due to a lack of enforcement. But wanton lawlessness aside, there is, I think, a pervasive misunderstanding of road rules. Earlier this week, a driver saddled up next to me as I was riding home from the grocery store. As she passed, well within three feet, she glared at me and mouthed something that looked a lot like "get the fuck out of my lane." The fact that I had the right to ride there was, evidently, totally lost on this driver.

And so while it's certainly frustrating that we, as a state, are going to have to have
what has become an annual conversation about the dangers of unsafe passing, maybe that's not such a bad thing. Maybe we need to have that conversation again.


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