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.