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Three-foot bicycle passing rule: Slightly better than nothing

May 23, 2012|By Dan Turner
  • Cyclists have been lobbying for years for a law that would mandate that motorists give them a three-foot buffer zone when passing.
Cyclists have been lobbying for years for a law that would mandate that motorists… (Los Angeles Times )

In the road war between L.A. motorists and cyclists, I usually side with the two-wheelers -- not because I pedal much myself (I'm more of a scooter aficionado than a biker) but because a contest between a 4,000-pound metal behemoth and a Schwinn cruiser isn't a fair fight. When they collide, the biker is nearly always the one who is going to be hurt or killed. So I'm happy to see the Legislature is on the verge of passing a new law on passing, though I suspect many bikers will complain that it doesn't go far enough to protect them.

SB 1464, written by Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) and backed by the city of Los Angeles, requires drivers to give bikers three feet of space when passing -- except, that is, when it doesn't.

One of the provisions of the state vehicle code that annoys bicyclists is that it says drivers must pass bikers at a "safe distance," but it doesn't define what that is. Neither motorists nor cops are going to carry yardsticks to practice or enforce the three-foot rule, but it is useful to set a distance standard, especially because most drivers probably think it's safe to give less room -- and it isn't. Bikers sometimes swerve to avoid broken glass or other roadway obstacles, and it's not uncommon for them to be hit or brushed from behind by passing cars.

So is there partying in the peloton? Not exactly. The problem for cyclists is that the three-foot rule isn't universal. The Legislature approved a similar bill last year, but it was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown because of a provision on what drivers have to do when they approach a bicyclist but there isn't room to give him or her a yard-long buffer zone, a common problem when the road is narrow and there's oncoming traffic. Last year's bill said they had to slow to 15 mph in order to pass, but Brown pointed out the problem with this in his veto message: "On streets with speed limits of 35 or 40 mph, slowing to 15 mph to pass a bicycle could cause rear-end collisions. On other roads, a bicycle may travel at or near 15 mph creating a long line of cars behind the cyclist."

The new version aims to swerve around Brown's veto pen by doing away with the 15 mph rule. Instead, in cases when the three-foot rule can't be observed, drivers must move at a speed that is "reasonable and prudent given traffic and roadway conditions" before passing. What does that mean? Who knows? It's a provision that, like other sections of the state vehicle code, recognizes that a lot of what happens on the road comes down to a driver's judgment -- or the judgment of a police officer. But it also means that drivers wouldn't always have to give a three-foot buffer or even necessarily slow down when passing a biker.

The state Senate is slated to vote on the bill Thursday, and there's little doubt that it will pass. Even the watered-down version is better than nothing, which is why advocacy groups like the California Bicycle Coalition are backing it. So give them three -- unless you can't.

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