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Under current California law (Vehicle Code section 21750), a motorist “…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…                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Of course, “safe distance” is not defined.  This leaves it up to a police officer.   We know that’s not going to work well, because motorists routinely speed past each other with inches to spare and nothing bad happens.  No harm, no foul, right?  So the law is ignored for motorists passing motorists.

And because it is ignored for motorists passing motorists, police officers just don’t think about enforcing it against motorists passing too close to cyclists.

But a car passing a bicycle closely is not the same as a car passing a car.  A car passing too closely can push a small cyclist over just by the wind a car makes…and that is the least of the problem.  That is why 19 other states over the last several decades have passed laws requiring a minimum 3-foot distance to pass a cyclist.  Even nine cities in Texas have passed such laws.

Sounds reasonable, and Senate Bill 910 – which would have made “3 feet to pass and no more than 15 MPH over the speed of the cyclist” the law in California – recently passed both houses of the California legislature with overwhelming approval.  Here is a link to a comparison of the current law and what would have been the law had our Governor signed SB 910.

Unfortunately, Governor Jerry Brown just yesterday vetoed SB 910 on the advice of none other than AAA and the California Highway Patrol.  They told the Governor that (even though this has not happened in the other 19 states with similar laws), literally, motorists would have rear-end collisions trying to comply with the law…

The fact is, motorists in 19 other states adapted to the law.

AAA is, of course, a motorist’s lobby.  Their concern would be their insured drivers, not the safety of cyclists those drivers imperil.  They aren’t trying to sell insurance and roadside assistance packages to cyclists after all.

But a lot of motorists are also cyclists, and it is hard to imagine any cyclist will continue to purchase insurance from AAA after this.

I don’t know what to think about the CHP.  Their brethren in 19 other states did not present data supporting the CHP‘s argument.  Nobody did.  Their concern was made up out of whole cloth, apparently.  I suspect they simply don’t want a tangible measurement they would be obliged to enforce.

Not with video cameras recording the unsafe passes…

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David Huntsman

Husband, father, cyclist, lawyer

This Post Has 2 Comments
  1. Why we’ve come to the point where we have to tell motorists they are passing a very vulnerable person, is beyond me. Perhaps Ian Walker’s study has something to do with this. I would venture to guess that drivers exercise more caution when passing the many new, young fixie kids that come to my bike shop. Riding solo and with groups, I’ve experienced getting “buzzed” by cars, the driver oblivious to the fact that major trauma to the rider could occur.

    Part of the problem is that the majority of drivers have not ridden a bike since childhood. And to put riding in perspective, they most likely never will ride a bike, have no interest in riding a bike, and don’t care if you ride a bike. Also, they don’t understand the many hazards constantly cyclists face (potholes, glass, ruts in the road, glass, bottles, girls in bikinis etc).

    In a way, maybe Jerry did us a favor. There is going to be much discussion of this, probably raising awareness of the issue even more than if it were silently signed into law. But where is Jello Biafra when we really need him?

  2. From frame builder and author Dave Moulton:

    “Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol were opposed to the bill because… wait for it… there might be a danger of cars rear ending each other if a motor vehicle had to slow to pass a cyclist.

    Give me a break… Cars have to slow down or stop for all manner of reasons; a vehicle waiting to turn left is probably the most common. If someone runs in the back of another vehicle they are either following too close, or they are not paying attention.”

    Not to mention vehicles slowing for right turns, slower moving trucks, street sweepers and postal jeeps. Where’s the epidemic of rear-end collisions from these?

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