California’s New 3 Foot Passing Law – Will it Help?

I can assure you I'm not pedaling 47MPH; that's the speed of the car about to overtake me...

I can assure you I’m not pedaling 47MPH — that’s the speed of the car that will overtake me,
just as I’m forced out of the bike lane by the thoughtless placement of a speed camera…

Governor Jerry Brown just signed AB 1371, the Three Feet for Safety Act, into law effective September 16, 2014. Doing so made California the 22nd state to enact a defined buffer zone between cyclists and overtaking motorists’ cars.

It is expected to be effective in preventing the kind of overtaking collisions that kill so many cyclists. But, I have doubts that it will be as effective as many hope.

The “teeth” of new California Vehicle Code section 21760:

(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.

Sounds helpful, right?

The problem is that the law doesn’t address motorist speed at 3 feet and then provides:

(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.

In other words, the new law says: “Pass bicycle riders with three feet to spare at ANY speed, but if you can’t pass with three feet to spare, slow down to a safe speed and SQUEEZE PAST.”

Not as helpful when you get in to the details, is it? A car going the same speed as me kills me just as handily as a car going faster than me if it knocks me down with its right-side rear-view mirror and runs me over…

(In fact, it merely codifies current (unsafe) motorist behavior. Kind of the same legislative logic as California’s “85th percentile rule” which says speed limits can’t be enforced if they are lower than the 85th percentile of speeding motorists on that street. A situation also known as “the lunatics are running the asylum”…)

But even if its teeth were sharp, I don’t have high hopes of this law being enforced.

Why? Because motorists have ALWAYS been required to slow to safe speeds when bicycles or pedestrians are present on the road or adjacent sidewalk under California’s “Basic Speed Law” (Vehicle Code Section 22350). But motorists don’t obey this law. They don’t slow to safe speeds, and they aren’t ticketed for it (as any cyclist who has been passed – a yard away or not – by a car going 50 to 70 MPH in the right lane on Newport Coast Drive, in the presence of law enforcement, will tell you). And it’s virtually the same analysis of motorist behavior. So, why expect that the same illegal behavior will get ticketed under the new law?

SILVER LINING: I believe that many “dangerous” drivers are victims of peer pressure. They want to slow down; they want to pass safely. But when there are other cars on the road, especially when when tailgated by another driver, they don’t slow down because they don’t want to be a “goody-two-shoes” in the mind of the driver behind. So they speed. They cut off cyclists at intersections to make right and left turns. They don’t stop when pedestrians are waiting to cross at crosswalks. I believe that in most cases, a driver left to his own devices will do the right thing. Perhaps knowledge of this law will provide the emotional justification (righteousness?) a driver needs to do the right thing around bicycles on the road.