When it’s come up for a vote before, a number of organizations have stood in it’s way, from AAA and truckers groups to, inexplicably, the California Highway Patrol.
Even though safe driving — that is, not running over cyclists or forcing us off the road — would seem to be in everyone’s interest.
But I didn’t expect a state-wide cycling organization to oppose a commonsense law that would make California streets safer for everyone who rides them.
Then again, maybe I should have, considering that they’ve already come out against the Idaho Stop Law that would allow cyclists to treat stop signs as yields — a law that has proved remarkably successful in its home state, and is the envy and desire of cyclists around the country.
While everyone from the more mainstream California Bicycle Association to Mayor of Los Angeles support the bill, the California Association of Bicycling Organizations has come out strongly against SB 910. That bill, which recently passed the state Senate’s Transportation and Housing Committee on the 6-3 vote, would establish a minimum three-foot passing distance for drivers passing cyclists, as well as establishing a maximum 15 mph speed differential when passing closer than that.
According to CABO’s website, one reason they oppose the bill is that they don’t believe three feet is “measurable or enforceable in practice.”
As it now stands, motorists are required to pass bicyclists at a safe distance without interfering with their safe operation. But there is absolutely no standard what a safe distance is.
While some drivers thankfully interpret it as giving cyclists a wide birth when they pass, others consider anything short of actually running over a rider to be perfectly acceptable. As virtually any cyclist who has ridden California roads for any amount of time can attest, it’s not the least bit uncommon to be passed with anything from a couple feet to mere inches of clearance.
Or to have a motorist squeeze by in same lane with so little margin for error that a simple sneeze on either party’s part could lead to a dangerous collision.
But under the existing standard, if you don’t actually get hit or knocked off your bike, it’s a safe — and therefore legal — pass. Even if it scared the crap out of you or made you struggle to avoid losing control.
And let’s not forget that the slipstream of a moving vehicle can sometimes be enough to make a cyclist lose control or knock you off your bike.
Despite their protestations, it’s actually the current vague standard that’s impossible to measure, giving drivers no guidance whatsoever as to how close they should or shouldn’t pass. And providing no objective standard for law enforcement, leading to judgment calls that can vary widely from one jurisdiction to another, and from officer to officer.
The three foot standard was never intended as an exact measurement. No one will ever pull out a tape measure to determine if a car is 35” or 37” from the cyclist being passed.
But any trained police officer should be able tell if a driver is passing significantly less than that. Just as any cyclist knows when a car is passing too close.
As a simple guide, the average adult arm is far less than three feet long. So if a cyclist could reach out and come anywhere near touching a passing vehicle, it’s in clear violation of the law. Under the current standard, though, it could come far closer as long as it doesn’t actually interfere with the operation of your bike.
The problem with that is that it allows no margin for error. Any unexpected action by either party could lead to a disastrous collision. Evidently, CABO has no problem with that, since they think the current standard is just fine, thank you.
Three feet merely provides, for the first time, an enforceable standard, giving motorists a yardstick — pun intended — to measure, not how close they should come, but the minimum distance they should stay away. And offers police a way to judge, without guessing, when a vehicle is too close.
Does it mean, as CABO suggests, that a three-foot law will encourage drivers to pass closer than they should under some situations, such as when driving large vehicles or travelling at high speeds?
You mean they don’t already?
Obviously, there are situations where more than three feet of clearance should be given. But I’ll gladly settle for 36 inches as opposed to the current standard of anything goes. And don’t forget, that’s a minimum standard; drivers are more than welcome to give more space when passing.
To be fair, though, I do agree with CABO on a couple points.
For instance, the proposed law contains an exemption allowing drivers to pass cyclists with less than three feet clearance, as long as they slow down to no more than 15 mph faster than the bike being passed.
In other words, if you’re riding at 15 mph, a driver wouldn’t have to give you three feet as long as they were travelling at no more than 30 mph.
I don’t think so.
I don’t know of any objective way for a driver or law enforcement officer to know just what the speed differential is between any two passing vehicles.
And frankly, I don’t want a driver trying to squeeze by at 10 mph above my speed any more than I want one doing it at 20, 30 or 40.
Even at the slower speeds, it would do nothing to reduce the possibility that either party might swerve unexpectedly. So it would do little to reduce the risk of a collision, but merely limit the severity.
And personally, I’d rather not get hit at any speed, thank you,
We’re also in agreement that drivers should be allowed to briefly cross double yellow lines in order to pass a bike; many drivers — myself included — do that anyway. As long as the other side of the road is clear, there’s far less risk in briefly putting two wheels across the center line than in passing a rider too closely.
Others have argued that the failure to enforce similar laws in other areas suggests that it will fail here, as well. But it’s up to the cyclists and citizens in those states to get police to enforce the laws on the books, rather than our responsibility to avoid passing much needed laws.
After all, if the police somewhere else stopped enforcing their laws against armed robbery, that wouldn’t be a reason to take ours off the books.
There are provisions in the proposal that can and should be changed, and places where the wording could be tightened up to avoid unintended complications. However, there’s still plenty of time left to improve the bill before it comes up for a final vote.
But let’s face it. You don’t have to talk to many California cyclists to realize that our current law is a complete, abject and utter failure that puts every rider on our roads at needless risk.
And a three-foot passing law is a vital first step in correcting it.