California’s Three Feet for Safety Act went into effect in September. For the first time a law codifies what ‘safe passing’ means for those who ride a bicycle: drivers now must allow a minimum of three feet when passing a rider (or else slow to a “reasonable or prudent” speed when passing. [FAQ] While disregarding it may incur only a $35 fine, should an injury crash result then the penalty jumps to $220. If sanctions are rare, this law is at least proving its value in one key arena: it sets a standard for local governments when they build new roads.
Here in Beverly Hills we’ve seen the new law, AB-1371 Three Feet for Safety Act (Bradford, D-62), invoked long before it even took effect. The Blue Ribbon Committee that reviewed design concepts for the Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction project recommended a wider corridor and striped bike lanes precisely because the new law’s safe standard of 3-feet could allow riders to slow motor traffic. (We recommended a wide boulevard and bike lanes for safety too.)
Existing law also required drivers to take due care when passing, of course. Prior to the Three Feet for Safety Act the state’s vehicle code described ‘safe passing’ this way:
The driver of a vehicle overtaking another vehicle or a bicycle proceeding in the same direction shall pass to the left at a safe distance without interfering with the safe operation of the overtaken vehicle or bicycle…. (Sec. 21750)
While the law didn’t identify a ‘safe passing’ distance, drivers were obligated to pass with some margin for rider safety. But the lack of a ‘safe passing’ standard made it difficult to enforce the law. And how often did drivers actually take the care necessary to pass safely? Not often enough. When we leave ‘safe distance’ to the judgement of a driver piloting a big steel box from the left-hand side as he hurtles down the road at speed, there will be close calls and, no surprise, many would-be riders are frightened of sharing the road with drivers.
(Keep in mind, however, that the law allowed, and still does allow, riders to use the entire lane if it’s too narrow to share with larger vehicles. Read more about your rights under the state law and local ordinances.)
Revision of the vehicular code to set a ‘safe passing’ standard was long overdue. Consider that only a few paragraphs after Section 21750 we see this passage that calls for a higher degree of care when passing livestock:
The driver of any vehicle approaching any horse drawn vehicle, any ridden animal, or any livestock shall exercise proper control of his vehicle and shall reduce speed or stop as may appear necessary or as may be signaled or otherwise requested by any person driving, riding or in charge of the animal or livestock in order to avoid frightening and to safeguard the animal or livestock and to insure the safety of any person driving or riding the animal or in charge of the livestock. (Sec. 21759)
It will come as no surprise to any of us who ride in Los Angeles that a farm animal is probably safer on a city street than is a cyclist. (We’re animal lovers, but we think that parity at a minimum is appropriate.)
The new law also implicitly acknowledges that disproportionate harm is suffered by those who bike: riders are injured in collisions at a disproportionately higher rate than are motorists considering the relatively small number of riders on the road. But still this law was no slam-dunk for the Governor: two bills prior to AB-1371 died with a stroke of Jerry Brown’s veto pen despite relentless advocacy for the safe-passing standard by the California Bicycle Coalition. (This year, Brown vetoed a raft of hit-and-run laws he didn’t like.)
How Three Feet Affects (or Doesn’t Affect) Transportation Planning in Beverly Hills
The Blue Ribbon committee back in January heard that the new law provided a means by which riders could claim that 3′ of blacktop in order to pass safely, and committee members feared that riders in the travel lane would slow traffic inordinately. So the committee recommended a wider boulevard and the striping of lanes.
More recently, in December, Beverly Hills transportation staff presented a new set of concept options for tomorrow’s Santa Monica Boulevard. And the staff report included a cursory supplementary analysis in light of the Three Feet for Safety Act. And what it found was that a boulevard less than 63′ would pinch the #2 lane to make safe passing impracticable. For example, maintaining a 60-ft width would allow only 8′ to pass, according to this city diagram:
Though the city wants to keep the narrow section of the boulevard at 60 feet, it acknowledges that even restriping the section wouldn’t offer riders safe passage in both directions (per the state’s 3 foot passing law).
By contrast, a 63-feet wide blacktop would provide sufficient room for motorists to safely pass a cyclist in the #2 lane, which we feel is demanded on a busy regional corridor that serves 50,000 vehicles a day. That’s why the Blue Ribbon had earlier recommended an even wider, 66-ft wide boulevard with striped lanes: that’s what’s necessary to maximize safety, it agreed by a wide margin, and nearly 200 road users who commented agreed.
Even our staff, led by Susan Healey Keene, Director of the Community Development Department (which has responsibility for transportation planning) agreed – and recommended the wider boulevard (albeit without striping lanes).
So why would our transportation staff now now recommend constructing this key regional corridor at only 60-ft, rider safety be damned? Simply because it’s more politically palatable to our City Council. (Stay tuned: a final decision on boulevard width will come on January 6th.)
No Net Loss Proposal: 62-Feet Allows Bicycle Lanes
We need not sacrifice rider safety on the altar of political expedience. A proposal to standardize (or rationalize) the entire boulevard at 62-ft with narrower lanes and striped bicycle lanes will be soon be presented to Council. As a bonus, those narrower travel lanes will slow traffic too. Win-win! We’ll discuss this proposal at a Monday (12/22) meeting at 7pm in the south meeting room of Beverly Hills Public Library (444 N. Rexford Drive in Beverly Hills).
Santa Monica at 62 feet restriped for bicycle lanes is possible!
The Three Feet for Safety Act provides street safety advocates with leverage we didn’t have prior. Before AB-1371, ‘safe passing’ was not defined; now it is defined as a three feet buffer around the rider. Transportation planners must take the new standard into account when, say, planning new roads or reconstructing existing ones (like Santa Monica). The law demands that rider safety be put on par with concerns like traffic throughput.
Beverly Hills will not have heard that message if City Council decides to construct Santa Monica Boulevard to a 20th century standard. At 60′ our segment of the boulevard will be too narrow to ever include bicycle lanes. Then we’ll not only have the impediment to traffic flow that Blue Ribbon committee members had feared; we’ll have a standing example of how our city, faced with the task of accommodating to new modes of mobility, simply disregarded our own plans and stuck our heads in the sand despite knowing better.