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.