Is California’s new three-foot passing law making a difference?

Things may be looking up for SoCal cyclists.

As noted at the end of last night’s story about the heartbreaking death of a 13-year old bike rider in Boyle Heights, bicycling fatalities are down significantly compared to this time last year.

Through March 11th, just eight bike riders have been killed in the seven-county Southern California region. That compares to 25 in 2014 — over three times as many — in what turned out to be a very bad year, with 85 bike riders losing their lives.

Although I hesitate to use the word “just” when even one death is one too many.

Yet even last year was an improvement over 2013, when 89 people died riding their bikes in Southern California — the highest total since at least 2005.

Which raises the question of whether California’s new three-foot passing law making a difference.


Though it’s too early to tell.

There has been a significant reduction in bicycling fatalities since the law took effect in September of last year.

From September, 2014 through February of this year, 29 bicyclist lost their lives, all as a result of traffic collisions.

In the same period through the fall and winter of 2013-14, 45 bike riders were killed, all but three in crashes with motor vehicles.

However, the reduction wasn’t instant; as the chart below shows, it wasn’t until December that any improvement in bicycling fatalities became apparent.


Which suggests that it may have taken a few months for drivers to adjust to the new rules and start passing bikes more safely.

On the other hand, there’s no difference compared to September 2013 through February 2014, with 29 deaths in the same five month period.

So the jury’s still out.

A lot will depend on what happens from here, when spring and summer weather bring more riders, and more less experienced riders, onto the streets.

But it’s looking good so far.

Update: As Serge points out in the comments below — and I should have noted — correlation is not causation. While deaths are down since the implementation of the three-foot law, that does not necessarily mean it is responsible for the decrease.

The three-foot law won’t have any impact on left-cross collisions, for instance, or wrecks due to right-of-way violations. 

The data simply isn’t there yet to tell what, if anything, is responsible for the decrease in fatalities; it may be just a temporary lull, as we’ve seen before.

But it’s a question worth asking, and one we’ll want to keep an eye on.



  1. Serge Issakov says:

    Correlation is not causation. There may be other factors, like more cyclists learning the safety and comfort benefits of using the full lane, and riding accordingly.

    Besides, I don’t think looking at all types of fatal crashes is useful. I suggest comparing the numbers of fatal same-direction overtaking crashes to really focus on whether the 3′ law is making a difference.

    I mean, if the numbers are dropping for left crosses, driveouts, doorings, cyclist-red-light-running, etc., I don’t see how the 3′ law could be credited, since those crash types don’t involve passing, let alone safe passing distances. Right hooks… yeah, it’s probably reasonable to credit the 3′ law for a sudden drop in right hooks, if that’s the case.

    • bikinginla says:

      You’re right, of course. We can’t say yet if there is an identifiable cause for the decrease in fatalities, let alone what it is. Or even if it’s more than just a temporary lull, which we’ve seen before.

      I’m just saying it’s an interesting question, and one worth keeping an eye on.

  2. Kathy Kurutz says:

    Correct that correlation is not causation. However, driver awareness may be far more enlightened now. I took the written DMV test in October. There were at least 10 bike awareness laws on the test that I was given. Random selection. The 3′ law stood out, loud and clear. Perhaps in drivers’ minds, they see the curb parking issues included. Before drivers even take the test, they must study the manual and its updates. I hope this isn’t a lull, but I’m realistic too. The statistics are still far too high…

  3. Mark Friis says:

    There simply could be just the effect of media attention due to the 3′ law. As much as I feel it’s a fairly useless law, it did give us the chance to educate many new people that bikes DO belong on the road. The other factor is whether we have an increase in overall biking. New infrastructure has come online too. I also know that our organization has had many opportunities to get the word out on multiple issues regarding biking and pedestrians. It’s all speculative but whatever the reason, it sure is nice not having a funeral every other week like we did last year. Let’s hope it stays quite.

  4. jay williams says:

    Correlation does not NECESSARILY mean causation, but being dismissive of correlational evidence entirely is just as big a sin.

    For example, the tobacco industry has historically relied on a dismissal of correlational evidence to reject a link between tobacco and lung cancer.

    To the subject at hand, I have not personally noticed any difference on my daily commutes but that could be just my being desensitized to close passes (literally every 5 mins).

    I am glad to see the lower body counts, especially with the increased ridership that I am seeing out there on the streets lately.

    • bikinginla says:

      You and me both. I’m hoping part of what we’re seeing is that highly vaunted safety in numbers phenomenon. There sure are a lot of bike riders here in Hollywood, despite a near-total lack of decent biking infrastructure.

  5. Douglas McFarland says:

    I still get passed very close every single ride. I was almost killed a bit over a year ago and this freaks me out even more. I’m going to rig my bike with cameras so I can document these drivers. I hope that I can do something with the information to help keep us safe.