At long last, those who ride a bicycle in California enjoy some protection as vulnerable road users under the state’s vehicular code. The new law, Three Feet for Safety Act (section 21760), for the first time specifies what ‘safe passing’ means to riders and drivers. When passing riders in the same direction, drivers must allow a three-foot margin. And if there’s not three feet available, the driver must slow and pass when there is sufficient room to present no danger to the rider.
Recall that state laws allow bicycle riding on virtually every public roadway, and even allows the rider to use the full width of the right lane if it’s not wide enough to share. (For a refresher on the law, visit our section on the vehicle code and local ordinances.) Until today, however, riders enjoyed no specific protection from careless drivers or roadway predators who simply didn’t regard the safety of two-wheeled travelers.
With a great assist from the California Bicycle Coalition, Sacramento finally passed a law that – while not perfect – is a stake in the ground to protect vulnerable road users that advocates can build upon. After rejecting two prior version, the third time was a charm for the Governor, who seemed swayed by (in our opinion) spurious arguments from CHP and the usual pro-motor concerns of the drivers’ lobbying group, the Auto Club.
What Does Three Feet For Safety Act Say?
Let’s look at the key provisions excerpted from the full text of the law:
(b) The driver of a motor vehicle overtaking and passing a bicycle that is proceeding in the same direction on a highway shall pass… at a safe distance that does not interfere with the safe operation of the overtaken bicycle, having due regard for the size and speed of the motor vehicle and the bicycle….
(c) A driver of a motor vehicle shall not overtake or pass a bicycle… at a distance of less than three feet between any part of the motor vehicle and any part of the bicycle or its operator.
(d) If the driver of a motor vehicle is unable to comply with subdivision (c), due to traffic or roadway conditions, the driver shall slow to a speed that is reasonable and prudent, and may pass only when doing so would not endanger the safety of the operator of the bicycle….
For the first time, state law makes ‘safe passing’ an enforceable standard – a distance of three feet at a minimum – rather than leave it to a more fuzzy ‘reasonable test,’ which puts interpretation on the driver. Instead the law gives riders and responding officers a reference.
We boldface not only that key provision in subsection C but also two key terms from the two other subsections because they reiterate what should already be universally acknowledged: every road user has a duty to regard the safety of other users according to their mode of transport, taking into account the vulnerability of pedestrians and riders; and a duty to behave prudently when behind the wheel or in the saddle. Ask any rider and they will tell you those softer standards are wholly missing on our roads today.
What Is the Penalty?
The law identifies two sanctions for drivers violating the Three Feet for Safety Act:
(e) (1) A violation of subdivision (b), (c), or (d) is an infraction punishable by a fine of thirty–five dollars ($35). (2) If a collision occurs between a motor vehicle and a bicycle causing bodily injury to the operator of the bicycle, and the driver of the motor vehicle is found to be in violation of subdivision (b), (c), or (d), a two–hundred–twenty–dollar ($220) fine shall be imposed on that driver.
So violators face a $35 fine. At first blush that seems not very much. (Running a stop sign sets you back $350 plus court costs in CA.) Should the rider be injured, however, the driver would be looking at only a $220 fine. Now that may not sound like much if you’ve been rear ended and sent to the hospital by a drunken or careless driver. And we’re sure it’s not going to pay your medical bills if the driver weasels out of culpability.
But the law is significant because it’s a stake in the ground: these new infractions give the rider a toehold in the courts where too often the most vulnerable road users get short shrift in a motor-minded society where, as Ted Rogers of Biking In LA notes, death by motor vehicle is often an excusable offense.
We would be nowhere without the tireless support and political arm-twisting of the California Bicycle Coalition and it’s lobbyists. (Unfortunately, that’s how the sausage is often made in Sacramento. Not for nothing was it vetoed twice.) Consider pledging your support to Calbike for their great work.
And the hard work doesn’t end with passage of this law. We have to educate all road users about the vulnerability of non-motor travelers. Excerpted from the Calbike page:
From day one of the long campaign for the Three Feet for Safety Act we realized that the key benefit of the bill was education. CalBike’s Three Feet for Safety Outreach Plan has three components and we need your help. The California Bicycle Coalition will provide media packets to our affiliates so that they can take advantage of media interest in the issue and educate motorists in their communities….Do you have a car? Get a bumper sticker or a window cling…. [And] CalBike is working with the California Traffic Control Devices Committee to get a sign approved as soon as the law goes into effect so that local agencies can install them wherever they’re needed.
So the next time you’re on the road, remember your rights to safe travel under the state’s new safe-passing standard and carry with you an imaginary yardstick to hold drivers to their responsibility to take due care.