Three Feet for Safety Act Goes into Effect Today!

Give Me Three posterAt 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. (Read more about it in this detailed KPCC post.) After rejecting two prior versions, the third time was a charm for this Governor, who had earlier seemed swayed by spurious arguments from CHP as well as 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. Haven’t heard about it from City Hall? While Beverly Hills has not promoted the law by issuing a press release, say, BHPD did announce it on October 7th.)  Give-me-three Logo

Three-Feet Passing Bill on the Governor’s Desk

Give Me Three posterWill the third time be the charm? On the Governor’s desk sits AB 1371, the ‘Three Feet for Safety Act,’ which would create a new standard for unsafe passing that specifically addresses the needs of those who ride a bicycle. Part of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s legislative agenda, two earlier versions of this bill went down by Governor’s veto. How ironic that the California Highway Patrol worked against it. The prospect of yet a third veto has riders again on edge. Will this Governor sign the state’s first safe passing law?

California is coming late the the party with a good safe passing bill, one that mentions bicycles and defines a safe margin for passing. AB 1371 would provide those protections by amending the California vehicular code. Under existing law, a driver is only required to pass on the left “at a safe distance.”  The problem is that it’s difficult to substantiate what an unsafe pass is because there is no measure in the law of an unsafe margin. How close it too close?

‘Pass safely’ is a staple of DMV exam books. And it’s common sense too. But in practice we riders share the road with impatient drivers who pilot two-ton vehicles on streets that are not exactly bike-friendly. Good safe-passing laws acknowledge our needs by defining a safe-passing standard.

According to the League of American Bicyclists, 24 states and the District of Columbia have specified a safe-passing margin while 26 states do not define one. “There are four states – Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington, and Vermont – which have laws that do not define a minimum safe distance in terms of feet,” the League says, “but are significantly different than the Uniform Vehicle Code in a way that provides more protection to bicyclists.

This bill would move our state into the column of states that do a better job of protecting those who ride by, in part, specifying a 3-foot passing distance. The January tally by the Bike League (below) shows the prevalence of a 3-foot standard as AB 1371 would mandate (click to download):

Safe passing laws by state graphicWhy specify a passing distance? Without a specified margin for safe passing, the driver’s own judgment becomes a standard. In case of a crash it would color the collision report and – should a case go to court – affect adjudication of fault (and thus awarded damages). Because an injury collision after-the-fact is often the only factual evidence of negligence, we’d like a standard that specifies a margin in order to hold motorists accountable before a crash occurs.

Safe passing states map via National Conference of State LegislaturesThe National Conference of State Legislators is tracking the issue and has created a handy map to illustrate the patchwork of state’s laws that specify any passing margin at all (right).

AB 1371: What it Says

AB 1371 amends the California vehicle code to prohibit overtaking a cyclist in a passing maneuver that affords fewer than 3 feet of room between any part of the motor vehicle and any part of the bicycle or its operator. This bill would make safe passing something to measure. The clear 3-foot standard would be a means of holding motorists accountable for side-mirror elbow bumps and bumper brushes to the thigh. From the bill text:

(a) This section shall be known and may be cited as the Three Feet for Safety Act. (b) The driver of a motor vehicle overtaking and passing a bicycle that is proceeding in the same direction on a highway shall pass in compliance with the provisions requirements of this article applicable to overtaking and passing a vehicle, and shall do so 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, traffic conditions, weather, visibility, and the surface and width of the highway. (c) A driver of a motor vehicle shall not overtake or pass a bicycle proceeding in the same direction on a highway 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, taking into account the size and speed of the motor vehicle and bicycle, traffic conditions, weather, visibility, and surface and width of the highway. (Amended text to section 21760)

The new law creates a $35 fine for unsafe passing and a $220 fine for unsafe passing that results in bodily injury. From the AB 1371 bill text:

(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. (Amended text to section 21760)

While $35 doesn’t not much, that relatively small sanction also serves to lower the threshold for citation. (Put too fat a fine to it and an officer would be less inclined to cite.) Plus, payment of even a small fine acknowledges culpability. These provisions would take effect one year from now. (Read more about the bill in the bill analysis.)

The Background to this Bill

This proposed legislation originates several years back when two earlier versions passed the chambers only to be vetoed by Governor Brown. (He kept us on tenterhooks back then too waiting for his action.)

With the support of the California Bicycle Coalition, its Give Me Three campaign, and the many transportation organizations and bicycle coalitions that backed it, this April legislators again took up the cause. AB 1371 passed by very comfortable majorities in the Assembly Transportation Committee (12-3-1) and the Appropriations Committee (12-5-0) before solid support emerged on the Assembly floor (52-20-7). In the Senate, the Transportation and Housing Committee unanimously gave the nod and the full State Senate followed suit with a resounding 31-7 vote.*

Kudos to Culver City for officially supporting the legislation and for the Mercury News for editorializing on behalf of it:

Brown needs to cut through the baloney. If we want more people to get out of their cars and help the air and the climate and give the SUVs more road share, cyclists need this small protection. (San Jose Mercury News 9/12/13)

Now again we wait. While we sit on our hands, it’s worth checking to see how your Sacramento Senate and Assembly representatives voted (see below). We’ll keep our fingers crossed that the good Governor will do the right thing this time. Will the third time be the charm?

In the Assembly, these members voted on behalf of rider safety: Achadjian, Alejo, Ammiano, Atkins, Bloom, Blumenfield, Bocanegra, Bonilla, Bonta, Bradford, Buchanan, Ian Calderon, Campos, Chau, Chesbro, Cooley, Daly, Dickinson, Eggman, Fong, Fox, Frazier, Garcia, Gatto, Gomez, Gordon, Gorell, Gray, Hall, Roger Hernández, Jones-Sawyer, Levine, Lowenthal, Medina, Mitchell, Mullin, Muratsuchi, Nazarian, Pan, Perea, V. Manuel Pérez, Quirk, Quirk-Silva, Rendon, Skinner, Ting, Torres, Weber, Wieckowski, Williams, Yamada, and John A. Pérez. Voting NOT to support riders: Bigelow, Brown, Chávez, Conway, Dahle, Donnelly, Hagman, Harkey, Jones, Linder, Logue, Maienschein, Mansoor, Nestande, Olsen, Patterson, Salas, Wagner, Waldron, and Wilk. (Not voting: Allen, Beth Gaines, Grove, Holden, Melendez, Morrell, & Stone.)

In the Senate, these members supported riders: Beall, Berryhill, Block, Calderon, Cannella, Corbett, De León, DeSaulnier, Emmerson, Evans, Fuller, Gaines, Galgiani, Hancock, Hernandez, Hill, Hueso, Jackson, Lara, Leno, Lieu, Liu, Monning, Padilla, (our own Fran) Pavley, Roth, Steinberg, Wolk, Wright, Wyland, and Yee. Voting NOT to support rider safety in the Senate: Anderson, Correa, Huff, Knight, Nielsen, Vidak, and Walters. (Not voting: Torres.) Remember them come next election.

State of the Union: Low Regard for Cyclist Safety

State safe passing laws map

Courtesy the National Conference of State Legislatures. Click through for more information.

The National Conference of State Legislatures recently posted a handy little map and table that surveys safe passing laws across the 50 states and the District of Columbia. And boy do those laws vary! The patchwork highlights how state law can and does affect the rider’s reasonable expectation of safety. But the laws also suggest a longer-term challenge: in many states, no law at all exists to guide drivers on safe passing. And the prevailing 3-foot  standard is a low bar with a slim margin of safety in practice. This challenges California to do better. While we could emulate the best of them, the numbers suggest it more likely we’ll simply fall in with the average.

The principle seems straightforward enough: under our laws cyclists are free to ride the public roadways and are entitled to a reasonable expectation of safety. In practice, however, that principle yields to reality: many if not the majority of drivers in Southern California pass too impatiently and closely to provide much of a safety margin for the cyclist. Our vehicular code (like many) is silent on the particulars and instead falls back on ‘due care’ language that everyday is revealed to be an insufficient bulwark against injury and death.

To the extent that states have established laws, the bar has been set relatively low nationwide. And these laws are a challenge to enforce anyway. This helpful study (click the map for a summary table of states and laws) highlights just how literally all over the map (sorry) are our states on safe-passing.

State safe-passing laws map and postThe short story: 19 states have enacted no statutory language at all; 27 state laws explicitly mention the bicycle and 20 of those mandate only a minimum passing distance (in all cases except two that distance was specified as three feet). None of the state laws go as far as ‘strict liability’ on the books in Northern Europe and few even go far enough to simply reassure cyclists on American roads that law enforcement has your back.

But there is no shortage of carnage and indeed sometimes it’s a rear-ender that sends a cyclist to the hospital or worse. The authorities and the media call these ‘accidents,’ but in truth there are very few accidents but many cases of negligence. Not surprisingly, cyclists (and especially would-be riders) say that they feel vulnerable. Yet we’re often not accorded explicit protection under the law like pedestrians.

Riddle us this: If we can protect pedestrians in crosswalks, why can’t a cyclist atop a human-powered device in the carriageway expect similar protection? If we presume motorist to be at fault (and liable) when he strikes a pedestrian in the crosswalk, why not presume the motorist fault when a cyclist is struck from behind.

We can do better. This year, we’re back with a new bill (SB 1464) and an advocacy effort spearheaded by the California Bicycle Coalition intended to avoid a repeat of last Fall, when Governor Brown winked at CHP and Auto Club lobbying and vetoed SB 910. That decent boilerplate 3-foot minimum passing bill wasn’t watered-down enough for the Auto Club. This time around, its been a bit pre-watered. Yet he early word is good for the bill’s prospects, but don’t hold your breath. Just look at the map above to see the low regard across state legislatures for cycllists’ safety.

Support Senate Bill 1464 ‘Give Me Three’

Give Me Three posterDo you like to ride your bike but fear passing traffic? Have you been brushed or even rear-ended by a careless motorist? Do you despair at the paucity of bike lanes? If yes, then the California Bicycle Coalition (CBC) wants you to sign on to their Senate Bill 1464 campaign so that cyclists can bike safe in the knowledge that finally a law exists to criminalize injury at the hands of a careless or negligent motorist. Believe it or not, these safeguards don’t exist today!

Senate Bill 1464, authored by Sen. Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach (a staunch cycling supporter and speaker at the LACBC Bike Summit last Fall), will require drivers to give bicyclists at least 3 feet of clearance when passing from behind. Nineteen other states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws similar to SB 1464. Pennsylvania recently upped the ante to 4 feet. Yet California is without similar safety legislation, and saw our hopes dimmed last year when Governor Brown vetoed the last bill sent to his desk (SB 910).

That bill is back as SB 1464 which addresses the Governor’s concerns by letting drivers to cross a double yellow centerline in order to pass a bicyclist. Yes, you can do that today. But this bill codifies it. The legislation would set a base fine of $220 for injuring a bicyclist in violation of the statute. (More about the campaign from Streetsblog Los Angeles.)

SB 1464 will receive a hearing in the Senate Transportation & Housing Committee on April 17th and the CBC wants you to let the committee know NOW why you want to see these protections written into law.

Support SB 1464!

There are many ways you can support this worthy campaign. You can use the CBC’s draft letter [.doc] as a template and send it out to the Committee members (roster). Or read our letter for the salient points. Then email your letter to Jim Brown at CBC at

You can also sign onto the CBC web campaign. Or pick up the phone to urge Committee Chair Senator Mark DeSaulnier to move this through committee. Heck, if your local Senator is Fran Pavley (district 23), she sits on the committee; give her a call (916-651-4023) and tell her staff why you support safe cycling.

This is another bold campaign by the California Bicycle Coalition (cosponsoring with the City of Los Angeles) to put protections in place (and it’s their second heavy-lift on it) so consider supporting CBC with a contribution or donate to their ‘give three to get three’ fundraiser.

We’ll leave you with this thought from CBC:

“Believe it or not, under existing law it’s not illegal to injure a bicyclist with a car. In far too many cases drivers who injure bicyclists never gets cited or punished in any way. Drivers who kill bicyclists can be prosecuted for vehicular manslaughter, a criminal charge. But there isn’t a comparable charge for injuring a bicyclist, even when the injuries are severe or permanently disabling.”

CalBike & LACBC Bike Summit a Success!

Bike Summit 2011 panel

CBC Executive Director Dave Snyder presides over a morning panel discussion: CBC's Advocacy and Capacity.

Last weekend the California Bicycle Coalition (CBC) and the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC) organized a ‘bike summit’ for active transportation advocates here in Downtown Los Angeles. And we can call it a success: about 150 attendees filled the Kyoto Grand Hotel ballroom to hear from state-level advocates and nonprofit leaders about the year we’ve left behind, and the year in organizing that lies ahead.

Conference panels included ‘Getting Your Message Out,’ ‘Sustainable Community Strategies and Regional Transportation Plans,’ ‘Best Practices in Membership Development,’ and ‘Bike Friendly Business District.’ (There were other panels too: see the conference program for panels and participants and have a look at Bike San Diego’s useful Recap of 2011 California Bike Summit.)

Bike Summit 2011 Charles Gandy in Regional panel

Long Beach's Charlie Gandy keeps the SoCal regionals breakout sesson focused!

For this Westside LA cyclist and organizer, a high point came early when the conference kicked off with a Friday session that convened Southern California advocates to talk about their priority issues.

Every Southland road-warrior knows how such problems relegate us to second-class road users. Led by Long Beach‘s mobility coordinator and bike advocate extraordinaire, Charlie Gandy, the gripes came tumbling out:

Poorly-educated drivers and a low bar for licensing (unlike Europe);

  • A dearth of dedicated cycling facilities and infrastructure;
  • Cops not familiar with how the vehicle code treats cyclists (like other vehicles) yet recognizes exceptions (we must ride ride except when in a ‘substandard’ width lane or where ‘not practicable’); and,
  • Local ordinances that vary from locality to locality and that put cyclists at a unique disadvantage relative to motorists (who merely follow the vehicular code) when moving across our multi-nucleated metropolis.

And many, many more. What was so impressive from this ad-hoc brain trust was the truly imaginative solutions on offer:

  • Early mobility education for kids instead of ‘driver’s education’ for motorists (as if there weren’t any other kind of road user);
  • Rationally rethinking speed limits (in lieu of our current process of notching up limits to the speed reached by 85% of drivers);
  • My own proposal for no-fault liability for collision injury or death (because fault is often difficult to assign or too easily evaded); and,
  • A big-picture campaign to reduce and eventually eliminate traffic fatalities called Vision Zero, offered by Ted Rogers of BikingInLA.

Ted, by the way, single-handedly keeps our community informed of tragic, avoidable loss-of-life and injury stories via his BikingInLA. Folks like him, convened at an event like the Summit, reminds us all how important it is work towards the common goals cited by session attendees. We could live in a better world today if even a few of the ideas expressed here were realized.

Saturday’s panels were kicked off by bike friend and State Senator from Long Beach, Alan Lowenthal, who proclaimed, “We’re right on the verge of doing great things!” before detailing Jerry Brown’s inexcusable veto of the cyclist-friendly SB910 legislation (aka three foot passing law). “The car-centric highway lobby is currently powerful,” he said. “Their position is, ‘We own the roads.’ The AAA goes right to the state agencies and the governor. As if the roads are not for all of the people of California.” He added, “Cycling is a major component of a sustainable society, but it  comes into conflict with their issues.”

Afternoon panels addressed transportation reform (with heavyweights Jessica Meaney of California Safe Routes Network and Graham Brownstein of TransForm); grassroots networks  with Dan Ward of Midnight Ridazz, Colin Bogart of LACBC, and Ben Guzman and Aurisha Smolarski of the Bicycle Kitchen; and Fundraising tactics with Ron Millam (co-founder of LACBC).

Bike Summit 2011 Chris Morfas

CBC Board President knows how to deliver a morale-building stemwinder!

The panels were bookended by general strategy sessions devoted to identifying and prioritizing transportation reform initiatives. Alexs Lantz, Policy Director (Streetsblog profile) for the LACBC sketched out the terrain while CBC Executive Director Dave Snyder and Board President (and loud-talker) Chris Morfas alternately cautioned of challenges yet rallied us on. “We are on the right side of history,” Snyder said. “Changes are coming.”

One of the most promising tools for leverage that change is Complete Streets. Again and again it surfaced at this policy-oriented Summit. Chris Morfas hailed it as “a compelling vision with a policy component” that may yet turn “battleship Caltrans.” He noted specific accomplishments like securing appointments for cycling reps on an important Caltrans facilities committee to remind us that change can happen. Yet these leaders made clear that we’re not merely snapping fingers to make a better world; we’ll have to organize in order to deliver safer streets and ultimately Ted’s Vision Zero for zero traffic fatalities.

That’s a goal that we can all get behind – and one we can eventually realize – if we in the cycling community collectively row with the beat laid down by the Summit.

If I have any suggestion to make, it would be to give us even more to chew on: organize panels around cases where specific advocacy messages resonated with policymakers and enabled new, pro-bike policies to be implemented. Or identify specific pressure points in Sacramento, the regional planning agencies, or local departments of transportation where we can target our efforts. We’re standing ready with torches and pitchforks, sure, but advocates will always benefit from tools crafted for maximum effectiveness.

Bike Summit 2011 Alexis Lantz and Martin Lopez-Lu

Alexis Lantz and Martin Lopez-Lu presiding over the registration table at the 2011 Bike Summit

In sum, maybe the most valuable aspect of Summit was re-establishing a connection between we cyclists on the ground and the advocates working on our behalf in the city halls and state capitol. It’s crucial that we support them, so point your browser over to the membership pages for the CBC and LACBC and let them know how much you appreciate them for organizing this mind-meld – and for their inspirational message and consistent efforts on our behalf.

Your Governor Vetoed SB 910

Jerry Brown 1969

This afternoon, your Governor, Edmund G. Brown, vetoed the most significant statewide cyclists safety legislation ever sent to any governor’s desk. The bill, SB 910, has been hailed by advocates across the state and championed in champion fashion by the California Bicycle Coalition (read the CBC letter). So unwavering and hard-fought was @CalBike‘s campaign that Brown’s veto can only come as a crushing blow to all cyclists who call for protection under the law. Not least, many hundreds of personal stories of intimidation and harm flowed to Sacramento from our two-wheeled comrades to no evident effect. We at Better Bike supported the legislation in committee with letters of support and sent our own SB910 letter to directly the Governor’s office … Continue reading

Give-Me-Three (SB 910) Waits on the Governor

Senate Bill 910 is sitting on the Governor’s desk. That’s the bill that would allow cyclists at least three feet of buffer when being overtaken by a motorist. You’d be forgiven if you thought that existing laws already afforded cyclists safe-passing protection. But you’d be mistaken: in practice, the buffer is anywhere from several feet to a few inches. Motorists evidenty have differing ideas about what constitutes “safe” passage. To right that wrong, the California Bicycle Coalition has been on the job, working hard to move this worthy bill through the Assembly and Senate and its related committees. Now it only awaits the good Governor’s signature. You need to remind Mr. Brown that 1) cyclists already do our part to … Continue reading