New law requires drivers to leave three feet when passing cyclists
on September 19, 2014
California’s new bike safety law will lead to safer roads or road rage, depending on whom you ask.
As of this week, drivers in California may legally pass a cyclist only if there is at least three feet of space between them. The fine for breaking the law, known as “Three Feet for Safety,” is $35. However, the fine increases to $220 if a driver’s violation of the law injures a cyclist.
In the East Bay, many well-traveled roads go past freeways, neighborhoods and downtowns, from one city to the next. Take College Avenue, for instance—the tree-lined street that passes by two schools, two downtown areas, and State Route 24 as it stretches from the California College of the Arts to the University of California at Berkeley. College Avenue is four lanes wide. And two are just for parking. On such bike-and-car-crowded streets, “Three Feet for Safety” drew mixed responses this week from cyclists, drivers and pedestrians, most of whom were unaware of the new rule until being asked about it.
“Three feet is pretty solid,” said Simone Papp, a recent graduate of California College of the Arts. Papp, who was walking around her old neighborhood—Rockridge—early Monday evening, said she liked the new law because many of her friends have been hit while biking on College. But Papp also supports herself as a driver for the phone-app service Lyft, and she will keep having to ask herself, she said, “Am I three feet?”
Ultimately, the law will be good for drivers like that, Papp said, pointing at a Ford 4×4 moving within breathing distance of cars parked along the street.
Both bikers and drivers said they wondered how the obligatory distance would be measured by police.
“It is the job of the officer to observe the totality of the issue,” California Highway Patrol Officer Mike Harris said in a phone interview. Harris also said there would be a learning curve as to where and when the CHP needs to monitor bike-car interaction. It’ll also take some time for officers to work the law into their beats, he said.
Three Feet for Safety does allow for exceptions. If road conditions do not allow for a three-foot buffer, the law states that drivers may legally pass cyclists if they slow their cars to a speed that is “reasonable and prudent.”
The phrasing of this exception is purposely subjective, said Robert Prinz, education director of Bike East Bay, a local community organization for cyclists. It lets the law be applied to rural areas where roads are wide, Prinz said, as well as dense urban areas where vehicles do not have much space to pass.
Though drivers were already expected to pass cyclists at reasonable speeds, Prinz said, the new law is valuable after an incident. Previously, it was hard for police to cite drivers for hitting cyclists even if the cyclist was badly hurt, he said.
“Three Feet gives something that’s very clear,” Prinz said.
In the popular and congested Temescal, pedestrians, drivers, and cyclists said that they were concerned with the impact the law will have on traffic.
“People who bike are most of the time slow,” said Monica Del, who was watching over a little one in Frog Park, located below the elevated Route 24. Del said that she lives nearby, and conditions for bikers are not good—narrow roads, lined with parked cars, and without bike lanes. She doesn’t mind giving more space to bikers, though with the new law “it’ll take longer to get where we want to get,” Del said.
“It makes me nervous,” said Ayesha Biggs, who moments earlier was victoriously holding her new driver’s license over her head in the parking lot of the DMV. Ayesha Biggs, who looked to be in her mid-thirties, said she agreed with her partner, Jason Biggs, that the new law will make roads a bit safer. Road conditions don’t allow him to bike from his home in downtown Oakland to work five miles away in Alameda, he said. But he said that he participates in 30- and 65-mile charity rides.
“There need to be more bike-friendly rides in the bay,” he said.
As for the real impact the law will have on traffic, Harris said the CHP will not know for a while, since the agency needs time to collect data.
“Our goal is to save lives, and this is a valuable resource for the bicycle community,” Harris said.
As for insurance, bicyclists are considered pedestrians, said Rebekah Felipe, a customer service representative at American International Group, an insurance and financial services organization with an office in Temescal. Felipe also said that the law was good for drivers because it forces them to drive more safely around cyclists, which she said will lead to fewer accidents.
“Unless the bicyclist ran a red light or if there’s enough witnesses,” she said, “the law is usually on the bicyclist’s side.”
For bikers, Felipe said, any collision with a car is likely to mean costly damage to the biker and the bike—not to mention the obvious trauma. So cyclists should also do everything they can to avoid accidents, she said. “You should act like a car,” Felipe said. “It’s for everyone’s safety.”
“I can’t stand bicyclists, to be honest,” said Taylor Reese, another customer service representative at AIG. Reese said that she supported the new law and sympathized with cyclists, but that driving with them is nerve-racking.
“What if a bicyclist was in that lane, right there?” Reese asked, pointing at a bus slugging past the entrance to a busy shopping center. Reese shivered.
Nohemi Bena, who works a pop-up flower shop at the MacArthur Bart Station, called the road conditions for cyclists “scary.” The station itself is equipped with bike racks and storage. Nearby streets have bike lanes. Still, Bena said, she won’t ride a bike. She hears about cyclists getting into accidents all the time, she said.
On the other hand, Liz Gamboa, who commutes in a helmet and business suit from Oakland to the Financial District, said that she feels safe as long as she uses bike lanes and not-so-busy roads. “It’s really fast,” Gamboa said over the swirl of commuters, busses and the freeway at rush hour.
Both Reese and Del said they were uncertain how Three Feet for Safety will affect road conditions since both observed drivers and bikers breaking the law. Reese said she has seen some people driving erratically. Del said some people biking do not take even basic precautions, like riding with bright clothes and lights.
A bus rider named Doug, who declined to give his last name, said the new law will lead to “road rage” in Rockridge since bicyclists act so “f***ing entitled,” as he put it, and as though they don’t have to follow the law.
Bikers who hold up traffic by riding slowly in the middle of the lane frustrate him, Doug said. “There need to be physical barriers,” such as those he’s seen in Sweden, Italy and Spain.
The CHP’s Harris said cyclists need to remember that the law requires them to move as far to the right as possible, if they are going below the speed limit, to let cars pass. “There is a law in place about impeding,” Harris said.
“A lot of cars don’t see [cyclists] because of their blind spots,” said Lillian Wong as she snacked in the parking lot of Koreana Plaza. Wong, a student at Berkeley City College, said she uses her car to go everywhere. Like most people interviewed, Wong said she believes the new law will lead to fewer accidents and safer streets.
Cameron L., who declined to give her last name, said that when she slows her own car for a biker, the drivers behind her usually get angry. “There needs to be more education,” she said.
“Education” is precisely the outcome that advocacy groups, like Bike East Bay and the California Bicycle Coalition, say “Three Feet for Safety” will have.
A $35 fine isn’t much, Prinz said. But if a driver hits a cyclist while violating the law, he said, the driver can pay over $1000 in fines and court fees.
“It’ll get people to think critically about what sharing the road means,” Prinz said.
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